Kiddie Cabin Pressure

5 min read

I like family vacations. I really do. Even when things go south. Even when the kids are whiny and miserable. Even when everyone is crying and fighting and having a terrible time.

The keyword here being time. Time is the most valuable currency in a family. Because we never, ever have enough time together. Best of times, worst of times… who cares? The point of family vacations is that we finally stop everything else we’re doing and spend some time together.

We get to experience each other outside the usual home, school and work sequence. It’s really touching for parents to watch their kids’ delight when they discover great big buildings with gigantic front steps, rum-raisin gelato and fuzzy little animals. 

Kids get to see their parents navigate the mysterious world of adults with its schedules, snap decisions and light banter with strangers.     

We were on a little family vacation to San Francisco. It was just a short one hour flight from LA and I had made reservations for us to stay at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. 

I had passed by this place plenty of times before and got a kick out of the doormen in their Beefeater outfits. I figured the kids would like this, especially my four-year-old son.

So there we were in coach, seated in our three across, seats - D, E & F - my wife on one side of the four year old, me on the other, our older daughter, just across the aisle. We had barely gotten to cruising altitude when the announcement came on we were beginning our descent into the bay area. 

I quickly reached for The Kit.   

What Is The Kit?

Years before, as first time parents we discovered that some children, upon a plane’s descent, experience extreme discomfort because of the rapid change in cabin pressure. It seems their tiny ear canals don’t allow the air pressure to equalize quickly enough and so this causes painful pressure on their tiny ear drums.  This results in big screams. 

Oddly enough, it was on a descent into this same airport, San Francisco International, years before, that our daughter first began screaming… something about her ears. We were stunned, frightened and helpless until a flight attendant filled us in on the situation. 

She gave our daughter some Coke to sip – swallowing was good for relieving the pressure. She also recommended gum, or blowing up a balloon, or squeezing her nostrils and blowing. Also, heat was good.

Nothing worked.

But the situation always sorts itself out. That is, usually when descending to around two thousand feet, their tiny ears equalize, the tears suddenly stop and they go back to coloring or pushing buttons or whatever. 

We, of course, were traumatized. As we taxied to the gate, we made frantic plans to race to the nearest emergency room. And like the first timers we were, instead of just changing the subject with our daughter, we kept pestering her about how she felt.

Enjoying the attention and playing her role to the hilt, our four year old announced to most of the passengers, “That was the worst plane ride of my life!”  

An elderly couple nearby, couldn’t contain themselves. As they chuckled, I could sorta get it from their point of view but I was annoyed with them.  At any moment blood might pour from her little ears. 

Of course we went to the emergency room as a first stop on that vacation and the doc patiently told us all the stuff that our flight attendant had already patiently told us. But this time, we got to pay a few hundred dollars for the same info. All of this resulted in buying our daughter a new Playmobile set. I believe it was a classroom with tiny students and a teacher.   

As a result of this incident we decided at vacation’s end not to fly back to Los Angeles but rather to rent a car and take the scenic route – California 1 on the coast, Monterey, Carmel, etc. If you’ve never done it, trust me, it is the scenic route. Plus, there are no ear problems on California 1.    

At some point after we arrived home, we put together what became known as The Kit. The Kit was our way of preparing for future aviation descents and our desperate hope to stave off more pain and trauma.  The Kit consisted of:

  •        Gum
  •        Balloons
  •        Hard candies
  •        Special mail-ordered rubber cups that held hot water. Heat is        good for the ears.
  •        Little plastic tubes called Plane Ears.  Also supposed to equal          air pressure in the ears.
  •        Whatever else was new on the market that month

All of this organized in a handy carry bag for easy access. 

Henceforth, on family flights, upon hearing we were beginning our descent, we would grab The Kit and begin what was to become known as The Routine.

What Is The Routine?

Here’s how the routine went: My wife would give our daughter (and later, our son) candy or gum so they would chew (to equalize the air pressure). Sometimes she tried to get them to blow up a balloon. But they couldn’t and this just annoyed them. I would go to the flight attendants and ask for hot water from the coffee maker in the galley. 

Together the flight attendant and I would carefully pour scalding hot water into the rubber ear cups, taking care not to burn either of us. I would place the cap on each cup and practically jump on it to get a watertight seal. I didn’t want flaming water dribbling down my children’s necks or this whole exercise would be for naught.

Then, with gum, candy, sips of water and very warm rubber cups on their ears, we would pray for the best. Occasionally all this stuff actually worked and there would be but whimpers. But mainly it served as a busy and very effective distraction… for the parents. 

The two of us were so consumed with The Kit and The Routine, we hardly had time to dread the coming calamity of tears. The kids, on the other hand, took it in stride. That is, they were good little travelers. Then they would scream. Then it would be over, like it never happened.

We, on the other hand would still be hyperventilating and playing their screams over and over like an old war movie. I kept expecting to see the blood run from their ears. It never happened.

We Are Beginning Our Descent

Ok, so you get the picture. Here we are, years later, once again descending into the bay area. 

We  pull out The Kit. We quickly transition into The Routine, as efficient as Seal Team 6, sure and confident from years of practice.  Water, candy, gum, ear cups with hot water.

But nothing is working. Our son is crying.  It is constant… so far he’s not screaming. But he is in pain and there is nothing worse than to see one’s child in pain. 

The crying continues… poor little guy, I feel so bad for him. We do everything we can but the crying goes up a notch. More pressure in the ear, more pain.

Then it happens.

From somewhere, several rows in front of us a male voice calls out, “Shut up!”.

The words hit us like a slap. Instantly, protectively and in perfect unison, my wife and I bark back, “FU** YOU!!”. 

Everything stops. The shock wave from our shout rolls through the cabin, silencing everyone and causes our son’s ears to pop. He stops his crying, only whimpering now.

He’s better… but I’m still fuming at the creep up ahead. I should be happy my son is no longer in pain, but no, my dominant emotion is anger. This could be a character defect in me…  I’m working on it. 

I mumble some more stupid things about wanting to ‘get that guy and teach him a lesson’. I can see him a few rows up and I stare at the back of his head, drilling a few neat ¼ inch holes into his skull with my Makita Vision. 

But still…. we’re on vacation and my thoughts eventually turn to happier things like, trying to remember where I put our overhead bags, so I can grab them in the post landing scramble. I’m also wondering where to pick up the bus for the rental car terminal. And do I have a map of the city…

My son's crying has now faded away, replaced by multiple busy activities. We land and I stow The Kit, carefully arranging its components for tactical access on our return flight.   

We pull to a stop and I’m on my feet, reaching for the overhead bin, when a little boy’s voice right below me rings strong and clear throughout the cabin,


Eddie Murphy

Do you remember Eddie Murphy in the SNL skit, ‘Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood’? Remember when he looks at the camera, his eyes popping open wide with surprise?  I imagine that’s how I must have appeared at this moment.     

I look up ahead at the guy. He’s standing but hasn’t turned around or in any way reacted to my son’s invitation to brawl. I am not a big man, but this guy is definitely smaller than me. I figure if push literally came to shove, I’m pretty sure I could deck him (unless he is a master of mysterious oriental martial arts - then all bets are off).  

But look… I’m a family man on vacation with young children. I can’t be mixed up in petty spats. I have a reservation that’s coming due at Budget Rent-A-Car.      

So I quickly lean over to my son and put on a fake smile, “Shhhh. No, it’s ok!  Everything’s all right now.” I happily nod to him.

But he must have been thinking about this moment for the last ten minutes and he’s ready to rumble. He points ahead through the maze of grownups, “But where is he?  Aren’t you going to get him?!”

“Shhh!  No, I think we taught him a lesson when me and mommy yelled at him.”, I lamely offer. And I look to my wife for help. But she’s just laughing. 

So I throw a Hail Mary, “We’re gonna go ride the cable cars, this afternoon!  Ok?”.

His eyes widen, “We are?!! Let’s go!” 

Bingo! Out maneuvered a four year old. I’m feeling very good about myself right now.     

We all shuffle off the plane. Nobody wants trouble. Everyone just wants to move forward onto their next phase of whatever… 


I’m happy to report that we did ride the cable cars that afternoon.  The kids got a kick out of the doormen at the Sir Francis Drake in their Beefeater outfits. We also went to Alcatraz, drove down the crookedest street in the world, visited Muir Woods and pretty much had a fun family vacation.

When it was time to go home, my wife and I looked at each other and decided to once again take the rental car home on scenic California 1.  On the way, we stopped at the fabulous Monterey Aquarium where we bought our son two adorable toy baby otters. 

Holding them in his little hands, he looked up and immediately announced, “Their names are Gichi and Ya-Ya!” 

This took us aback, “You mean like in the song?” 

He happily nodded. And I wondered, how did he pick up on Patti LaBelle’s infamous refrain from “Lady Marmalade”. 

Kids… they hear everything. 

As we once again drove down beautiful California 1, headed for Los Angeles, my thoughts turned to my own childhood in New York and a show I used to watch on TV that came to us all the way from… Los Angeles.

The show’s host was a fellow named Art Linkletter. He had all these kids on his show and these kids just said the darndest things. 

Apparently, all these years later, so did mine.  


Jon Lapidese is a travel copywriter and blogger