Babysitters on airplanes

 

Inspiration strikes when you least expect it, and last summer it hit Julie Melnick on a flight from Los Angeles to Florida.

She struggled onto the plane with a car seat, her 2-year-old son and assorted carry-on bags, and then had a tough time enroute. “My child didn’t want to sit still and he needed to be walked up and down the aisle 5,000 times,” Melnick said. “It was just such a draining experience.”

Melnick knew other moms deal with the same thing, and she thought there had to be a better way. Her solution: Nanny in the Clouds, a website that will match parents seeking in-flight babysitters with a fellow passenger on their flight who has experience caring for children.

Signing up is free, but once a match is made, parents pay $10 for an introduction to a potential babysitter. Then it’s up to the sitter and the parents to work out a fee — and to call the airline and ask to be seated together or request adjoining seats during check in.

“We’re recommending the going rate, which is $10 to $20 an hour,” said Melnick. “But a lot of people are willing to pay a premium when they’re traveling.”

Nannies must provide two references upon signing up, but Nanny in the Clouds does not do background checks. “If they’re a teacher, a college student or a grandma, they are qualified in our eye,” said Melnick. Instead, the site encourages parents to do their homework and have phone conversations and/or an in-person meeting to ensure that the match is right.

Several family travel experts gave Nanny in the Clouds the once over.

“My first reaction was: How lazy are parents that they can’t even watch their own children during a measly flight?” said Colleen Lanin, editor and founder of TravelMamas.com. But after thinking it over, she decided a sitter in the air could be a lifesaver for a mom or dad who is traveling solo with two or more young children. “It would also be a great service for parents who are prone to air sickness or who are nervous/phobic flyers,” said Lanin.

“I would predict more crying, not less,” said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor-in-chief at We Just Got Back. “Most small kids would want to sit with their parents, not a stranger, on a flight.”

Airplane travel “takes the whole family out of their routine” by adding anxiety, excitement, and, usually, sleep deprivation, said travel comfort specialist Anya Clowers of JetwithKids.com. “If the timing and the match were correct, and parents remain in control by using the nanny mostly as an assistant to help, this may be a blessing.”

For those who do hire an in-flight sitter, though, Clowers advises scheduling a get-to-know-you session before boarding. “A photo or Skype session prior to travel is a good idea so the nanny is not a stranger on the day of travel,” she said.

Nanny in the Clouds launched in November 2011, although Melnick said that, so far, no matches for in-flight sitters have been made.

“There are 30,000 flights a day, and right now it’s a long shot that there will be a registered sitter on the flight you’re on,” said Melnick. So within a few weeks the site will add a feature that allows travelers to search by city pairs instead of specific flight numbers. That will expand the options and allow a mom going from Los Angeles to Miami to choose a flight that already has a registered nanny.

While Melnick has high hopes for her service, she’s not the first to create a program that provides in-flight babysitters. One airline, Gulf Air, already offers specially trained Sky Nannies as a complimentary service on its wide-bodied aircraft flying long-haul flights and in its airport lounges.

Still, whether there’s a sitter on board or not, Clowers said, “Parents still need to take responsibility for their children and be prepared to meet their needs at 37,000 feet.”

What do you think? Would you hire a nanny to watch your kids on a flight?

(My story about Nanny in the Clouds originally appeared on Today.com)