Red-eye flight with toddler...and the chairman of the Federal Reserve

Nov. 22, 2011 at 2:02 PM ET

Diana Sugg /
Oliver, 10 months, and Sam, 2, travelling through the airport in style.

We were the last ones to board the plane that clear January night, and I had a good feeling. My 10-month-old baby was fed and happy, and I’d been granted a last minute, unbelievable gift: the plane was full, so I – and my baby boy – had been bumped up to first class.

It was the year we’d become travel pros.  Because of my husband’s work in Switzerland, we’d already pulled off several long overseas trips with our baby and toddler. And we had it down to a science.

Every inch of my carry-on bag was strategically packed, with enough snacks and supplies to survive any delay or diaper blowout. I’d discovered special wheel carts that turned the boys’ car seats into ad-hoc strollers so we could roll them through the airports. And at security checkpoints, we knew the routine so well that we could unload and reload the boys, get everyone’s shoes on and off, and get through the scanners in record time.

No matter how prepared I might have been for traveling with small children, though, I was learning there were two things beyond my control: whether the boys would sleep, and the temperament of nearby passengers.

On this flight, as I sized up the seat that I would share with my baby, I noticed that the first-class cabin was full of men, all in suits, some already stretched out and looking forward to a long, quiet night above the ocean. We were on a red-eye flight from Washington D.C.’s Dulles airport to Zurich. The flight attendant bent near me and whispered, “Do you know who is sitting behind you?”

I looked back, and there, directly behind Oliver and me, was Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

It was January 2009, and the financial crisis was in full swing. Bernanke had a huge stack of work with him and impossibly difficult decisions to make. I, on the other hand, had a bag with 25 diapers, teething toys and a soft, cloth book with sailboats and anchors sewn in it. Oliver, 35 pounds of chubby baby, was drooling, rubbing his fingers over his teething gums. He was standing on my lap, pumping his legs up and down, as if readying to launch himself through the ceiling of the plane. Oliver was just tall enough to pop his big pumpkin head over the seat and smile at Bernanke.

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I found myself flashing back to past experiences with fellow passengers: the ones who played peek-a-boo with the kids, or the kind, older woman, who, after sitting through my 2-year-old son Sam’s crying, bent near me with a warm smile and said, “Oh honey, I understand. I have grandchildren.”

Other times, it didn’t go so well. On one flight, as I settled into my seat with Oliver, I found myself saying out loud, “Oh no, you made a pooh pooh.”

“Oh gawd,” moaned the man sitting next to me, clearly disgusted. He looked at Oliver and me as if we were another, more primitive species. I hugged Oliver and wished we could hide.

But this night, in first class, I thought, it had to be better. The cabin felt quiet, almost meditative. The flight attendants gave me warm nuts in a little ceramic bowl. The leather seat was huge. I reclined it and nursed Oliver, trying to get him to sleep. When that failed, I tried to create a little playpen for him in the back of the seat, with me positioned on the seat’s edge as a fence. He was not interested.

He kept trying to bust out to the aisle, where he crawled at top speeds past Bernanke, or he grabbed onto seats and toddled from row to row toward the economy section, where my husband and our 2-year-old son were in their seats. I scooped Oliver back in my lap and tried to settle him. But then he would reach for the window cover, pushing it up and down, or he’d investigate the buttons on the fancy control panel. When the food came, he yanked at the white cloth placemat, almost spilling the deluxe food and flatware.

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He never cried. He was just happy, curious, and very awake. And mostly, for some reason that night, Oliver wanted to climb on me so he could see Bernanke. I cringed, trying to pull him down. Oliver jabbered at Bernanke in baby talk. At one point, I think around 2 a.m., I heard Bernanke’s voice reply. He must have said something funny to Oliver, because they both laughed, like old colleagues sharing a joke.

It wasn’t until we began descending into Zurich the next morning that Oliver finally conked out. As we landed, the plane stopped before the gate, so Bernanke could get out. He stopped at my seat.

“Did you ever get any sleep last night?” he asked sympathetically.

“No,” I said, thinking it was a bigger deal for him, for interest rates, for the economy. “I’m really sorry about the noise. I know you need your sleep right now.”

Then, just before he was whisked off in a black sedan with a police escort, the chairman of the Federal Reserve looked back at me with a huge smile, and words that would earn him a place as one of my favorite passengers: “I didn’t hear a thing.”

Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered medicine, crime and other issues for newspapers around the country. She is now a freelance writer in Baltimore raising two young sons. 

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