Bulkhead or Aisle? Choosing the Best Seats with Baby

Veda sleeping in an extra empty seat on a long flight from Dulles to Johannesburg with a stopover in Dakar

My husband and I discuss our airline seating options every time we book a flight with baby about which is better: bulkhead seats with more leg room and a bassinet, or a an aisle seat/row with an empty seat(s) next to us.  It really depends on the trip, but either way, we call ahead and request the seats that we want.  Some airlines take requests in advance (like Etihad), while others make you wait to request bulkhead seats at the gate (like Delta).  This also assumes flying cattle class, as we usually do.

On our trip this past weekend from Chicago O’Hare to Johannesburg O.R. Tambo (25+ hours with a stop-over in Washington, DC and Dakar), we requested bulkhead seats on South African Airways/ United, although we were told that bulkhead seats with bassinets can only be requested on their airline for babies under 6 months old.  Luckily, both flights were less than 75% full and we ended up on both flights with 1-2 extra seats where we had extra playing space for Veda, plus a space where I comfortably laid her while she slept much of the flight.

The benefits of a bulkhead seat with bassinet include:

* Having the extra leg room

* Extra space for playroom on the floor in front of you if you have an older busy infant or toddler

* Extra sleeping/ safe space for baby in the bassinet (although at 13 months and 31″ long, our baby no longer fits in the bassinet).

Even if baby is sleeping on me or my husband in a wrap, chances are there will be times when baby is awake.  It is really convenient to have the bassinet (especially for younger infants) as a safe place to put baby when, for example, I have needed to grab the diaper bag above for a diaper change, or enjoy my incredibly delicious airline meal.  The only drawback we’ve found of bulkhead is that you can’t lift the armrests to make one big family space or to lay down across several seats with baby.

The benefits of requesting to be in a seat in a row with empty seats around you include:

* Ability to lift up all the arm rests and lay down with baby, which makes for a much more comfortable and restful flight.

* Having one extra seat provides extra space for stuff, baby toys, setting baby (carefully with supervision), etc.

* If traveling with a car seat, many airlines will allow use of the car seat in an empty seat next to you without purchasing a full-fare ticket on a flight that is not full.

If it is not a full flight, I have been lucky enough to get a middle section (four seats) all to myself and baby. but this seems increasingly rare.

For some reason, I seem to be better accommodated, in general, as a traveling mother with a baby on international carriers such as Etihad and Emirates, rather than U.S. carriers such as Delta, United, and American Airlines.  In general, I seem to be able to call ahead and request a bassinet or aisle seat on international carriers more frequently, while I have frequently but seated in a middle seat in nose-bleed seats as I watch a young man in a suit enjoy the bulkhead with bassinet capabilities on Delta flights.  I’m convinced that U.S. culture just does not value families/ children as most other cultures in the world, which is reflected through my flying experiences on different carriers.

Sometimes it can be tricky deciding what to request depending on your own baby playing/ sleeping objectives and preferences, the number of parents/ children flying with you, and whether or not the airline will accommodate your seating preferences in advance or if you will need to take your chances.  For us, it worked to try several different seating arrangements and still prefer bulkhead or aisle/ row with empty seat depending on the flight, etc.

Related Pages:

Seven Reasons Why I Love Family-Friendly Etihad Airways

15 Essentials to Include in Baby’s Carry-On

Infant Bassinets in Bulkhead Explained

Travel Logistics

How much does baby’s airline ticket cost?

Enjoying the Ride

Keeping Baby Engaged and Happy

14 thoughts on “Bulkhead or Aisle? Choosing the Best Seats with Baby”

  • Isn’t the bulkhead row the emergency exit row? Canadian airlines do not allow children in that row because of that. I flew yesterday for the first time and was not allowed to wear my baby in flight either. I was very disappointed. He did very well though, I was so impressed!

    • Dear Shannon,

      I am glad to hear your baby did very well on your first flight, despite your disappointment! I am very sorry to hear about your experience with not being allowed to wear baby in-flight.

      Some bulkhead seats are in exit rows on the sides, and infants may not travel in exit rows. However, the vast majority of bulkhead on all airline carriers, U.S., Canadian, and international, are any of the seats that are the first seats in each plane section with no other seats in front of them. There are circular metal holes where bassinets are affixed that the airline carries. Most airlines designate bulkhead seats that are not exit row seats as seats specifically for infants as those areas are fitted for bassinets, or for people with disabilities. Many airlines have policies that require bulkhead seats with bassinets to be reserved specifically for families with infants. I am not sure what type of plane that you flew on- was it a smaller domestic flight? In this case, the bulkhead seats on either side may have been exit row only. On most larger planes at least the four seats in the middle are not exit rows and are designated for bassinets. I have flown many time in bulkhead seats with bassinets both in the middle section and in the window/ aisle section of the plane.

      Regarding wearing baby in-flight, I am curious what airline you flew with? Please let me know. We have flown on 50 + flights with our baby on various U.S. and international carriers including Air India, Emirates, Etihad, South African Airways, United, Mango, Delta, American, etc. I have always 100% of the time worn my baby and have never been told I am not allowed to, so I would very much be interested in knowing the airline you flew with and inquiring about their policies on this. I have flown on some carriers (Etihad, South African Airways) that require during take-off and landing this silly infant belt to be secured around the infant’s waist and attached to my own belt, in which case I have just buckled it around baby’s waist through the Moby wrap that I use. Please do let me know the airline carrier you flew with and if it was a smaller domestic flight or international flight. I appreciate you sharing your experience, and am sorry again for the disappointment!

      • Aha, thanks for clarifying what a bulkhead is! I will look for that next time. As for my flight, it was on West Jet, and was just a short one-hour domestic flight. I did read on Air Canada’s site that carriers are allowed in flight, but not during take-off or landing. When we landed when we got home, it was a smooth landing and I didn’t realize that we were down until the pilot slammed on the brakes. I was holding my baby in the right position, but not clutched tightly so he almost lurched out of my grip. Had he been in a carrier or wrap, he would have been safe and snug. I think I will write the airlines to make this point. Also, when I went through security at my home airport, I had to take him out of the carrier and send it through the X-ray, but I could wear him through security on the way home. Maybe it’s because our airport is smaller and they need to make themselves look busy or important! Thank you for all your advice, we had a great flight and are looking forward to our longer international flight at the end of February!

        • Hi Shannon- Thanks for letting me know what airline it is. I am trying to compile a list of airlines that have good/ bad policies/ attitudes regarding parents flying with babies. I also think it is silly that some airlines don’t allow a wrap/ carrier to be used during take-off and landing, while others do allow this. I also think that logically, the safest and most secure place for baby is snugly strapped down to mom (or dad)! I especially loathe the attachment belts some airlines require to strap around your belt, and then strap around the baby’s waist. I actually think that is more dangerous to have a seat belt around a tiny infant’s waist. I have had arguments with a couple of flight attendants over this, and have been meaning to write to some airlines, as well. There are inconsistent policies across carriers on infant safety during take-off and landing, and I don’t know if there exists any actual studies on what is actually the safest. Regardless, I appreciate you sharing your opinion and providing the airline name!

          Regarding the bulkhead, I am assuming if you were flying on a short domestic flight, it was likely a smaller plane where the only bulkhead seats were indeed exit rows where baby cannot be. If you are flying internationally soon on a longer flight, if it is a much larger plane with various sections, you most likely will find that there are bulkhead seats that are not exit rows that have bassinets you can request, if that’s your preference. Thanks again, Shannon, and thanks for sharing! Definitely check back again to share your experience or opinions as you take your next international flight!

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