Flying solo

I promise we will one day get off the topic of holidaying with babies – I assume that day will come when we fail to find an excuse to go on holiday again and / or run out of money. But bear with me on this one as I have many words of wisdom to impart on the subject of flying transatlantic alone with a baby – some might sum this up by saying “don’t”, I might provide additional enlightenment on this frankly pessimistic outlook and instead say “maybe don’t risk American”.

A single 10 hour flight across the Atlantic would be too easy, no, Elphie and I had to add another short haul 1.5 hour flight to make sure we had covered all bases for flying alone with an infant. The incentive for this insanity was an opportunity to spend quality time with my matron of honour, Julia, who hoping for a chilled out few days with me last summer as I started maternity leave was instead treated to unanticipated week 0 chaos. This was too good an opportunity to miss to get to hang out with her for ten whole days, something we hadn’t had a chance to do for a decade!

I was a bit nervous before heading, my first flight being during the day and hence likely to involve a lot of Elphie entertainment as we all know she ain’t a great napper. But she’s been pretty much fine on all her other flights so was confident it wouldn’t be that bad. My concern was about the seating arrangements – I had rung up American Airlines before flying and been told I could not book a bassinet in advance and would have to do it at the airport. This made me more nervous as being by myself in a bulkhead with a bassinet or equivalent to put madam down in was one thing – sitting with her on my lap for ten hours was entirely another!

So I get to Heathrow in plenty of time and ask at check-in. The guy says there’s room but they cannot allocate those seats at the check-in desks, I have to ask at the gate but it should be fine. So we have breakfast with Fred who kindly escorted us to the airport and then head through. When we reach the gate, I ask about the seats. Apparently all the bulkhead seats that allow for a bassinet have been sold – reaping in extra cash for AA. But, but, but, you knew I was coming with an infant – why wasn’t one reserved for me? And I already paid 10% extra for the pleasure of having Elphie fly with me so it’s not unreasonable to expect more than a standard seat! Their response was that the seat next to me was empty and that was the best they could do. Now, I have no idea whether it is a coincidence that the seat next to us was empty or whether it was deliberate so they could sell the bulkheads for extra and fob me off, but it was disconcerting nonetheless. A spare seat is better than nothing in that I could put Elphie in it so I could eat my delicious airline dinner, but it’s no good for her to nap in so she had to do that on my lap.

Luckily, the lady in the other seat in our group of three had a 14 year old and so was sympathetic to the trials of travelling alone and would keep an eye on Elphie while I fiddled with the overhead locker and let her look out of the window.

Whilst eating, I strapped her into the spare seat, which would probably have the health and safety lot, who believe all infants should be transported in car seats on aeroplane, apoplectic. This thread is an interesting and extreme view of both sides of the argument on whether lap infants are likely to become projectile missiles; be potential airbags for their parents; worse off in car seats which are tested for car speeds not aeroplane speeds; or absolutely fine for the risk level involved unless you take your car seat on all bus and train journeys as well. I went to that thread to try and find out why AA didn’t have seatbelt extenders for infants whereas BA does – I left none the wiser other than finding out that the FAA banned them so American carriers can’t use them, it seems the FAA has approved a harness alternative but the airlines presumably have chosen not to carry those instead. Just seems odd that we had to use it on BA whenever the fasten seatbelt sign was on and yet on AA being totally unrestrained was fine. Bizarre.

Other exciting things I learnt on the flight – some flight attendants are health and safety crazy – askance at me allowing Elphie to crawl on the “dirty” floor and stating the galley to be off limits due to the risk of her fingers getting run over by a runaway trolley. I suspect she had never herself flown with a baby.

It is possible to go to the loo with a baby – it just requires a certain amount of bending over with your arm extended above you to keep the wriggling and excitable baby from nosediving off the changing table onto your head or the floor, while grappling for loo paper with your other hand. Who needs yoga?!

Bring snacks. Elphie didn’t care for the airline breakfast and so I was glad I had brought some cucumber and Ella’s cookies with me to sate her appetite (you can bring baby food without being restricted to the 100ml limit – had I known that I’d have brought a pouch along too). I did have to neck the uneaten cucumber before entering the US though as I didn’t want to tick the box on the customs form explaining why I was bringing vegetables into the country.

So we arrived in Dallas in one piece and not too frazzled. Elphie had had two short naps and even deigned to eat some of the airline pizza lunch. I hadn’t got to watch a film but had managed part of Mulan and some TV, so it wasn’t all bad.

I made my way to passport control and wondered at the queue of maybe 500 people waiting to enter the US – no priority line for me! Then it was onto baggage reclaim to pick up my luggage, pass through customs and return it to the carousel on the other side. Much fun if by yourself with a baby. Even more fun when your main suitcase doesn’t show up.

Rather stressed, I went to the information booth to enquire over my missing luggage. Apparently it had got lost somewhere in London and might have caught an earlier flight or might be getting a later one – I should cross my fingers and hope it would turnup in Santa Fe. Brilliant.

So on to Santa Fe on one of the thinnest aeroplanes I have flown on – just three seats across. I wore Elphie in the ergo for the flight which I would find out on my return flights was also verboten by the FAA, and she slept the entire time so I got to read my book – bliss! We arrived in Santa Fe to await the fate of my luggage on the world’s shortest baggage conveyor.

Photo credit: Orbit of the Mooneys

And guess what?

Only one suitcase turned up! Meaning my main suitcase and the car seat were lost in transit.

This has never happened to me before, not once in my various travels has a single piece of luggage gone astray. But sure, why not universe, let me travel alone and then hit me with the humdinger.

Luckily the airport had a spare car seat that Elphie could just fit into weight wise. And I learnt a valuable lesson about packing spare clothes in each suitcase and your carry on. I was quite nervous about when my luggage would reappear as the AA online system kept saying it hadn’t located them yet. I took some comfort from the fact that the lady at the airport had said both items had been located in Dallas and so should be on the first flight in the morning. Duly they turned up mid afternoon somewhere down the road and had to be ushered towards the right house, but boy was I glad to see them – visions of needing to duplicate Elphie’s entire 9-12 month wardrobe had crossed my mind.

After all that kerfuffle you can imagine that I was not optimistic about the flight back. This would be a true test of Elphie’s travelling mettle as it was a short hop mid afternoon and then an evening red eye back to London. Despite efforts to keep her going to bed around 9pm, the last two nights of the trip Elphie adjusted to her usual night time habits and was partying till after midnight. So I was a little concerned she would do the same on the flight and keep everyone up.

Despite being told before the outbound flight that I couldn’t book the bassinets in advance, I decided to try again just in case. Sure enough, this time I could request a bassinet although it wasn’t guaranteed. When I arrived in Albuquerque I was told that this time I had been given a bulkhead seat so all was good with the world.

Waiting for the flight was fun as we found another mother flying solo, this time with a 3 year old and 1.5 year old for Elphie to play with. She’d got a cheap buddy ticket from a friend but hence was on a seven hour layover entertaining her two boys – she wouldn’t recommend this course of action. Elphie crawled after the 3 year old particularly, probably due to being used to hanging out with Evan so much at home, and she had a great time exploring the viewing area and nicking crackers from the kid’s goodie bag (note to self bring lots of snacks!).

The bassinet on the transatlantic flight was essential. It was a useful holding bay for meal times, but had to be cleaned out afterwards before Elphie slept so that it wasn’t a crummy flight for her (boom boom).

It was essential overnight – Elphie slept mostly in the bassinet (which was a bit of a tight squeeze) once the lights were dimmed but woke every 1-2 hours at first and was intermittently in my lap. But she would only wake for a minute or two before being sent back to the land of nod by downing milk so it wasn’t too bad. After being woken from a twenty minute sleep by her squawking, I could not sleep for any of the rest of the flight and strained my eyes reading my book instead. I think part of my insomnia was caused by a guy wearing a jacket with Air Marshal written on it coming striding down the aisle scanning to and fro with a flashlight, once towards me as I was waiting for the guy next to me to get back from the loo and then again later on. As my understanding of Air Marshals was they were supposed to be plain clothed and incognito, I was a bit bemused and concerned by this display, although no excitement came of it.

So would I fly solo again? Sure, why not! But I’ll stick to BA if I can – both for the service, prioritisation of those with babies and definitely for their nifty infant seats made specially by Britax. With a bassinet or seat, it’s basically business class for babies, and who wouldn’t want that!

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