Support Takes Off After AirTran Boots Screaming Toddler

How much would it cost an airline - heck, any business - to get public acclaim like this?

"I will make sure to fly AirTran always!"

"Give AirTran a standing ovation!"

"From now on, every business trip I take ... AirTran!"

The budget carrier got hundreds of accolades like these last week in news columns, letters to the editor and online postings. It didn't cost them a dime, but then, you can't buy publicity like that for any price.

All they had to do was eject an obstreperous toddler and her woebegone parents from a Florida-to-Boston flight. They didn't even realize what a gold mine of public support they had unearthed until the parents (unwisely, in retrospect) launched an indignant media crusade about their ordeal.

It's not particularly surprising that the story of the Kulesza family - Mom, Dad and a 3-year-old - briefly made headlines. Theirs is the sort of controversy du jour that keeps the mighty turbines of the American media apparatus smoothly awhirl.

The surprise is in the astonishingly vehement, lopsided response to this little imbroglio. One reader of the Orlando Sentinel wryly observed that this story received more reader comments in a single day than the most recent session of the Florida Legislature in its entirety.

The essentials of the story are that on Jan. 14, after a happy four-day visit to see relatives in Fort Myers, Fla., the Kulesza family boarded an AirTran flight to return to Massachusetts.

While the plane was still at the gate, 3-year-old Elly experienced a full-bore, red-alert meltdown, crying uncontrollably, crawling under the seat and hitting her mother.

After a 15-minute delay, during which the parents could not get the child belted into her seat, the flight crew told the family they would have to get off so the plane could depart.

The angry, embarrassed parents later protested that they should have been allowed to hold the child in their laps (which would have violated FAA regulations), or that they should have been given more time to calm her down (which would have further delayed the other 120 passengers on board).

AirTran flew the family home the next day. After the Kuleszas began telling their story publicly, the carrier apparently got a little nervous about possible negative publicity. It issued a statement that, while not quite an apology, took a conciliatory tone; airline officials also offered the family three free round-trip tickets to the destination of their choice.

They need not have bothered, judging from the tenor of public sentiment. The airline reports that calls, e-mails and letters they have received about this issue have been 92 percent supportive of its actions; public posting sites for news outlets that carried the story have reflected a split along similar lines.

Little Elly Kulesza, it seems, briefly captured the imagination of a nation - and not in a good way.

"Almost everyone can relate," one friend of mine, a father of two, theorizes. "You've either been the parent with a nonstop crying child ... or you're the person who wishes the parent could make that kid shut the heck up."

"We've all been there at some point," said another dad, a father of three. "But those parents presumed far too much on the patience of the flight crew and their fellow passengers."

It's normal behavior, and not demonic possession, for small children to lapse into screaming hysteria from time to time.

Yet I have an almost superstitious dread of having this transpire within the sealed and already uncomfortable confines of a fully occupied aircraft. I won't say with absolute certainty that I'd rather be shot in the head with a nail gun - but it's close.

Most observers see only two possible outcomes to this scenario: Family is allowed to stay on the plane, or family is ordered off.

A seeming minority derides the heartless, child-averse intolerance of those who support AirTran's decision to take the Kuleszas off the plane.

And there's a thumping majority that sees a clueless incivility in the Kuleszas' argument that a crowded airplane, its engines running, should have idled on the runway until their child could calm down.

It's too bad these parents didn't consider a third alternative, which would have been to ask to get off the plane and take a later flight, when their daughter was calmer. They would still have suffered an inconvenience, but they would have been spared the much more painful public embarrassment of being ordered off the plane.

I would come down on the side of the airline in this case. It's just too bad it had to go that far.

I don't know who has the legal upper hand here. But maybe it would have been easier to do the polite thing in the first place.

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