Even when they don't have to deal with lost luggage, interminable tarmac delays, or charges of surly service, airlines have another issue to add to their growing list of problems: children who won't obey flight attendants, parents, or rules of decent behavior.
AirTran seized the bull by the horns in December by forcibly disembarking a Massachusetts couple whose 3-year-old daughter refused to take her seat, buckle her seat belt, or stop screaming.
The family got seats on another flight to Boston plus three free seats on any future AirTran flight. They took the first offer but declined the second.
What happened next boggles the mind: AirTran got 14,000 calls and emails endorsing their action.
If George W. Bush had won Florida by that many votes seven years ago, Al Gore supporters could stop singing Hail to the Thief.
The bottom line is that most airline passengers pack little patience for little kids. Syndicated columnist Eileen Ogintz, whose "Taking the Kids: column has a website of the same name, said she received emails from passengers who wanted to ban all children under age 5.
Worcester Telegram writer Dianne Williamson, who broke the story of the AirTran incident, also received enormous feedback -- mostly from people who sided with the airline.
"I guess people really don't like kids on planes," she conceded.
Since parents with children board first, perhaps the problem can best be addressed by seating them in the same general section, in the back of the plane. They would be close to the restrooms they need so frequently but far from most of the adults who prefer to sleep, read, or travel in whatever peace is possible on a plane.
Grouping traveling children -- rather than spreading them all over the aircraft -- would provide inflight playmates as well as inflight peace. It would also help prevent screaming kids from running up and down aircraft aisles when they need to use the facilities.
In addition, since families with kids invariably carry extra paraphernalia that requires more time to store above and below their seats, boarding them in the back should speed up the boarding process and make quick turnarounds and on-time departures more likely.
To be sure, air travel is difficult these days. Heavy security checks, with rules that seem to change daily, raise the stress level for passengers long before they board. Then there are noisy airport seating areas -- rife with inane cell-phone chatter and a constant cacophony of noise from the omnipresent CNN Airport Channel -- and the overpacked planes. Airplane seats are cramped and food, if available at all, comes with a price. And did anyone mention the word delay?
Unruly passengers of any age only compound the felony. When they won't listen to reason, the results can be unreasonable.
AirTran insists the involuntary bumping of Julie and Gerry Kulesza was a safety issue: federal regulations require all passengers over the age of 24 months to sit in a seat with seat belt fastened during takeoff and landing.
The Atlanta-based discounter also admitted it could have handled the situation better. The 14,000 people who applauded its action don't necessarily agree.