In writing the June cover story, three of the four fathers I interviewed said that they liked raising children in China because it’s more family-friendly than many other countries. What they specifically mean – and in some cases specifically say – is that people in China are more tolerant of children’s behavior/misbehavior. I considered this during a recent return flight from San Francisco as the child behind me kicked the seat and poked at his video screen.
Children are travelers with special needs, but only parents with children under three receive any kind of special treatment in terms of boarding, space, or seat selection. It’s time for this to change. The solution isn’t banning children from sections of the aircraft. It’s creating family-friendly sections of the plane.
Travelers without children similarly want different services when flying. For many reasons, they may not wish to be seated near children. Therefore, the solution is both obvious and simple: family-friendly cabins, both in business and economy class. And if Chinese airlines want to distinguish themselves and make them more appealing to non-Chinese travelers, they should pioneer this concept.
As much as possible, family and non-family travelers would be grouped together. This could be accomplished and enhanced with proper seating configurations. How about some seat belt options for non-adults? How about some seats that aren’t only for adults, perhaps with padded armrests for safety and easier sleeping? Those would be good starting points.
For items like video screens, many small children have to look up at his or her monitor, and probably can’t reach it – that all needs to be made friendlier, and of course loaded with enough entertainment and games for a 13-hour flight. My recent flight on Air China demonstrated that their in-flight entertainment selections offered only one episode of each show featured, making it quite a crap shoot as to whether that will be engaging or not.
Most airlines offer kids’ meals, but this needs to be enhanced in frequency and quality. Is there be a way for clever airline seat designers to create seating where family members could be oriented more towards each other, rather than only sitting in a line facing forward? Many business class seats are already backward-facing, is there a way to do this in an economy cabin without reducing seating capacity?
For the booking of seats, any arrangement that separates a family of any size is lose-lose. Minors’ seat assignments should be tied to the adults’ booking, period. I once sat next to a 10-year-old whose parents were 20 rows back, on a 12-hour flight. Nice kid, but I learned a lot more about Formula One than I cared to know, and the moment he ordered – and the flight attendant served him – coffee, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep for one second. Family-friendly cabins coupled with appropriate seat booking constraints would ensure that a five-year-old (or 10-year-old) isn’t stranded away from the one or two people on the plane with whom he or she actually wants to sit. Airlines should actively assist in keeping families together as much as possible through negotiation and a bit of prodding – and it wouldn’t kill them to toss a single traveler an upgrade now and then if that’s what it takes.
China’s various airlines are not known for their service, but they could be, and families would embrace airlines that embrace them. Look at Annie’s, the Italian restaurant chain in Beijing. Annie’s has three great advantages: they were an early entrant into the local pizza and Italian food market; their delivery is shockingly fast, and they have consistently won over parents and families for having high chairs, crayons, and staff who make a fuss over kids.
Has it paid off for them? At the Beijinger 2014 Reader Restaurant Awards, Annie’s won six awards, including Outstanding Restaurant of the Year (Non-Chinese, Casual Dining). To win an award like that, with every other non-Chinese, casual dining restaurant competing, means customer loyalty. Winning over families builds that loyalty.
While it seems that airlines flying out of Beijing have problems with the fast delivery part of the business, they can still reach out to families. If China really is a family-friendlier place, then this is a big opportunity not only to secure China’s massive travel market on more than just price and anti-competitive activity, but on serving a crucial, and loyal, market segment.
Until Tuesday, wishing travelers of all ages one road flat safe.
This post appeared in thebeijinger.com on June 12, 2014.
Photo courtesy of ABCnews via theebeijinger.com