I used to be a very good air passenger. I was one of the paranoid few who would check in online, decant their toiletries into small plastic bags, turn up precisely two hours before departure and dutifully trot to the gate to wait for boarding. I remember laughing with a friend who missed her New York flight because she was at home painting her finger nails. It proved to be a most expensive manicure.
Since the birth of daughter one, now two years old, and number two, aged five months, I've blotted my copy book with almost every airline. These days I turn up to check in just in time, bearing heavy boxes (brand new buggy, car seat), tricky items to stow overhead (cane bassinet, hand luggage weighing 12kg) and once on board, make difficult requests such as: "I know you are very busy but would you please heat up this bottle of milk then hand it to me just before take off so my toddler doesn't drink it too early?" On this occasion the exasperated air hostess cleverly concealed the bottle in a napkin and a tantrum (mine) was averted.
On our last trip back from the UK, however, we managed to cross the Rubicon into the contested territory of "never again". I repeated this phrase over and over as I sprinted, ever so slightly hobbled by holding a baby and wheeling that 12kg carry-on suitcase I mentioned, to the departure gate, only to be greeted by a stressed looking member of British Airways' staff who said: "There you are. We were just about to offload your bags." I could not reply because I was struggling to breathe, so she continued. "I know you have children but you really must try to be more on time."
I couldn't argue with this last part. Somehow our breakfast of hot chocolate and croissants to offset the 4am start had morphed into a trek for nappies and a missed rendezvous. I was standing just the wrong side of a pillar as my husband and toddler frantically paced the departure lounge. Some 20 minutes of sweat and tears followed, not to mention recriminations, as we finally caught the light railway to the departure gate at the other end of Heathrow's Terminal 5. The packet of nappies, which remained unopened throughout the flight, was nearly as expensive as my friend's manicure.
Airports and airlines have done their best to bite back, stranding me in transit at Rome airport for six hours holding a tiny baby, for example. At other times, though, they have provided lucky breaks: an air steward who used to be a midwife; a charming steward who fell for my daughter's smiles and let her out of close confinement in economy to play between the aisles in first class for a few hours. All in all, I think I have held the smoother end of the stick, albeit one covered in baby drool.