Terror at 30,000 Feet

Home technologies across the sky

My wife and I recently decided to take our children—ages 6 and 2—on their first cross-country plane flight, as part of a family vacation in Phoenix. We lived in Phoenix for several years and have family and friends in the area, and it seemed like a nice place to visit in April, before the temperatures soar to the 109-degree summer average. But getting to Phoenix from our home near Boston would mean several long hours on a plane with two fidgety kids. Barring sedation (which, believe me, we considered), we needed something to keep the kids occupied. I decided to create an arsenal of technology-based distractions.

In matters of full disclosure, my wife (aka "the good parent") ensured that both kids had an adequate supply of crayons, modeling clay, books, stickers, and other traditional children's diversions. But we have an unusually high-tech home because of my work with Connected Home Media and Windows & .NET Magazine, so I came up with some techy alternatives. Here's what we brought.

Portable Movies
I spend a lot of time on the road for business-related travel, and I've noted the proliferation of small, dedicated portable DVD players. I don't currently own one of these devices, but I usually have at least a few laptops around the house because of my monthly laptop reviews, so I brought them with us to keep the kids occupied.

For my 2-year-old daughter, I queued up Monsters, Inc. on my aging 500MHz Apple Computer iBook—a 12" model that isn't much bigger or heavier than a portable DVD player. These days, Monsters, Inc. is the only movie she'll watch (and watch, and watch, and ... well, you get the idea). The iBook has fallen into disrepair with age, and its batteries don't quite get the charge they used to (one battery lasts less than an hour now, unfortunately), but the iBook did the trick: On both cross-country flights, my daughter was able to take in all of her favorite movie in wide-screen. She had a blast experimenting with the headphones, as well. Meanwhile, my son is more of a dinosaur kind of kid, so I fed Disney's Dinosaur into a Dell laptop for him. As for the adults, I watched The Matrix Revolutions on a loaner IBM ThinkPad, and my Luddite wife actually had the temerity to read a book. The shame.

Most long flights also include some kind of movie, although they're typically uninteresting to kids or inaccessible because of high screens or because the kids can't see over the top of the seats. Prepare for this: Kids will be disappointed to discover that movies are on board that they can't or don't want to watch.

Portable Video Games
My son loves video games, so I brought along his Nintendo GameBoy Advance and some kid-oriented games, such as Avalanche Software's Tak and the Power of Jojo, and sports titles, such as Electronic Arts' SSX3, at which he excels. However, because he's a big fan of action-oriented PC games, he eventually bored of the tiny screen and relatively lackluster graphics. Luckily, I had anticipated this.

Gaming Laptop
Yes, my son is spoiled, but when the boredom really set in, I knew it was time to break out the Dell wide-screen laptop (another loaner), which sports a fast 1.6GHz processor and 3-D graphics capabilities that rival many desktop systems. If you walk around an airplane these days, you'll typically see businessmen playing games such as solitaire and the occasional slow-moving real-time strategy game. Systems such as the Dell, which combines long-lasting battery life with desktop-like power, let you play the latest 3-D action games—for example, Microsoft's Halo and Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2004if you so desire. I own a selection of games that are acceptable for my son, and he was the envy of the cabin for a few hours.

One bit of advice: Many games require that a CD-ROM be in the optical drive before you can play the game—a bit of old-school copy protection. But using two batteries in a portable system is best for maximum life, and yet one of those batteries needs to be in the same bay as the CD-ROM drive. I've found that you can launch the game with the CD-ROM drive in the bay, then swap out the CD-ROM drive for the second battery while the game is running. You get the best of both worlds.

Portable Music
Both my son and daughter found the plane's onboard sound system interesting because it involved headphones they could plug in over and over again, as well as a little control panel they could use to change the station and the volume. These distractions, of course, proved only temporary for the kids, but my son did eventually fall asleep with classical music playing on his headset, which we found interesting.

If you have your own headphones (and, optionally, the adapter that some airline headphone jacks require), bring them with you. The airlines will typically sell you a set, but those headphones are of low quality compared with what you probably have at home. I use an expensive pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones because of my frequent travel. I also use a portable audio player—formerly an iPod, but I've recently switched to a Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ), which boasts much better battery life and is compatible with the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format that much of my music collection uses.

Triaging the Trip
Tech toys came in handy on the trip out to Phoenix, but I was surprised to discover that they were far less interesting to the kids on the way home. On the return trip, the kids spent more time with modeling clay (making daddy fashion realistic-looking dinosaurs) and coloring books than with movies or video games. In the end, although children clearly need to be occupied during such long trips, I'm not sure technology makes much of a difference, and cost and weight concerns are certainly involved with most technology-based distractions. But your results will depend on your kids, as well as your decisions about introducing technology at home.

One thing we can all agree on, I suspect, is that sleep is good: When it comes to plane travel, I'll take a snoozing 2-year-old over a screaming terror any day. If anyone has solutions for that particular problem, I'm listening.

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