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Flying With Children Can Be Truly Uplifting : A relaxing airplane ride is possible through planning, diversion and, yes, good luck.

March 15, 1992|EILEEN OGINTZ | Ogintz is a former national reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

I never was so glad to see a G.I. Joe. The doll, I mean.

There I was at Chicago's O'Hare Airport with my three children (including an infant) waiting for a flight that had been delayed. Seven-year-old Matthew and 5-year-old Regina had exhausted the snacks we'd brought and pronounced all of the coloring books, games and books in their backpacks "boring." They were squabbling. The baby was crying. I wished I could hop the next flight to Hawaii. Alone.

Then I remembered the brand-new G.I. Joe and My Little Pony figures I'd stashed in the bag. The kids pounced on the new toys as if they'd never had any in their lives and played contentedly until we boarded. And they went right back to their new toys as soon as we were settled in our seats. It was the best $10 I'd ever spent.

"What good little travelers," the woman in front of us said approvingly, midway through the flight. Other passengers nearby nodded in agreement. I just kept my fingers crossed that the peace would last until we crossed the Grand Canyon. I needn't have been so paranoid. When we arrived in Las Vegas, where my family lives, the flight attendants said we had been a joy to have on board.

Too bad raising kids isn't always that easy and problem-solving so inexpensive. I learned my lesson well, though. I may forget the tickets or enough diapers, but when I fly with my children, I always make sure each child has a new toy--cost not to exceed $5--as well as a backpack full of favorites they've chosen themselves from home. And no matter how much they beg, they aren't allowed to open their new acquisitions until we get to the airport gate.

Like a growing number of American kids, mine are veteran fliers. None was more than 2 months old the first time he or she first boarded a plane. Matt's frequent-flier miles covered his ticket to Colorado this winter and Reggie's upcoming trip to Las Vegas. Melanie, who just turned 1, will get her account as soon as she's 2, when we are required to buy her a ticket.

These days, airline officials acknowledge, kids on board are as common as businessmen and many, like my kids, earn frequent-flier miles right alongside their parents.

But no matter whether kids fly frequently or once in their lives, a little planning can go a long way to ensure that the trip is not the disaster parents dread. It might even be fun. To help parents along, in fact, the San Jose International Airport has published "Kids in Flight," a how-to guide for traveling families. (It's available free by writing: San Jose International Airport, 1661 Airport Blvd., Suite C-205, San Jose, Calif. 95110, 408-277-5366.)

If you have a baby, the "Kids in Flight" brochure advises, don't forget a bottle or pacifier for her to suck during takeoff and landing. There's nothing worse than an infant's piercing screams reverberating through the cabin. Especially when it's your own.

And while airlines certainly won't guarantee a seat for an infant if one hasn't been purchased, they usually will seat you next to an empty one--if space is available--as long as you know to ask. Bring your car seat to the gate if you think you're going to get a spare seat. The baby will be much safer and if the flight turns out to be full, airline personnel can check it for you at the gate. They also can check a stroller at the gate.

And don't forget some spare clothes and enough diapers and food to last all day. Otherwise, fate will certainly cause your plane to be delayed and gift you with a starving, wet baby. It has happened to me.

Pack a spare shirt for older kids if you want them to look decent when you arrive. That's what I do now, after spending a couple of flights trying to mop tomato juice and Coke off light-colored T-shirts. And even if it's summer, take a sweat shirt or light jacket on board. Planes frequently can be chilly for small bodies.

"Spare clothes for a parent is a good idea, too, if you want to look great at your destination," suggests Marily Moira, who organized the "Kids in Flight" brochure. Moira, a mother, observes that you can never tell what might end up on your own clothes.

Whenever possible, the brochure advises, plan your flight around kids' schedules. My rule is to never opt for the last flight of the day in case it gets canceled. I also always try to get a nonstop route rather than one that makes requires a change of planes.

Reserve seats in advance, depending upon your needs and your kids' preferences. Some children enjoy looking out of window and it can provide a much-needed temporary respite for mom and dad. Many toddlers who can't sit for longer than 30 seconds benefit from the leg room that bulkhead seats offer, but my kids have always preferred sitting a row or two back--because the armrests lift up and they can easily stretch out. To help make exiting the plane easy, avoid seats in the very back of the plane.

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