Clowning around: Airlines expand in-fight entertainment for kids
El Al Airlines, the national carrier of Israel, is famous for its stringent security measures. But that hasn't kept clowns — loved by most children, yet terrifying to some adults — from boarding some planes.
As part of an expanded family entertainment program, the airline has added a clown to the cabin crew of select long-haul flights from Tel Aviv to New York and several other cities.
The complimentary program runs all summer and was featured on some El Al flights during the recent unrest that caused other airlines to temporarily halt flights to and from Israel.
On clown-enhanced flights, the temporary crew member roams the aisles, telling stories and riddles to children and handing out coloring books, crayons and games. The clown also selects 10 children on each flight to serve as clown assistants and, as a reward for completing a variety of assignments, those children get to visit the captain in the cockpit.
"The clowns and all the extra giveaway items are an additional expense for the airline," said airline spokeswoman Sheryl Stein, "but it brings happiness to families during a busy travel season and we want the kids, who are our future customers, to remember El Al."
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Nannies, not clowns, help care for children year-round on some other airlines.
In 2003, Bahrain-based Gulf Air introduced a team of Sky Nannies to help with boarding and disembarkation and to "give parents that much needed break during a long flight and generally provide a watchful eye on the little ones." The complimentary service was so successful that nannies now help out in the airline's lounges as well.
SriLankan Airlines has a designated Child Care Stewardess on board many flights and, in September 2013, Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, introduced its own Flying Nanny service for long-haul flights. Each of the Etihad's 500 Flying Nannies (identifiable by their orange aprons) is equipped with a goody bag of games and activities and has completed courses in child psychology and sociology.
"Airlines are also taking more initiatives to entertain kids with one-off surprise in-flight events that see cabin crew painting the faces of young passengers, offering a tour of the aircraft or hosting an in-flight drawing competition where kids proudly parade the aisle showing their creations to fellow passengers," said Raymond Kollau of airlinetrends.com.
These kind of events not only keep kids busy, but "create a cozy atmosphere," said Kollau, so both parents and fellow passengers are happy.
While surely helpful for some travelers, in-flight clowns and nannies don't interest Karim Kassam, a clean-energy executive based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who travels often with his 8-year-old son.
"As a parent it's my job to keep my son entertained when we travel," said Kassam. "If he's not sleeping, reading, watching TV or on his iPad, we play games or do the unimaginable — talk."
To assist travelers who would rather not be seated near children, several airlines offer — or are considering offering — special sections.
Virgin Atlantic President Richard Branson has floated the idea of creating a separate, supervised kid-only section on his company's airplanes.
Singapore Airline's budget carrier, Scoot, currently offers a "ScootinSilence" section on its Boeing 777s where children age 12 and under are not allowed. Air Asia X has a quite zone only open to passengers age 12 and older. And the upper decks of Malaysia Airline's Airbus A380s are designated as kid-free.
Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.