Time to Talk About Kids, Planes and Family Seat Assignments

Time to Talk About Kids, Planes and Family Seat Assignments

Written by

Christopher ElliottThe Family Travel Association has assembled a remarkable family-travel brain trust to guide our development – advisors on our board and other councillors, members and partners with many years of travel thought-leadership. Over the coming weeks and months, we will share a bounty of wisdom from their decades of advocacy for and hands-on practice in family travel.

Following our inaugural pieces by Keith Bellows, Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Travel; by Kyle McCarthy, Editor of Family Travel Forum; by Matt Villano, a senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog; by Heather Greenwood Davis, an award-winning journalist and feature writer; and by Karin Sheets, an adventurer and special needs advocate; this week the spotlight turns to Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate, multimedia journalist and customer service expert help people do battle against user-unfriendly practices and stacked odds at Elliott.org. He reacts here to the ongoing debate about airlines charging families for the right to sit together on airplanes.

Are you sure? You didn't select a seat.Here’s the pop-up screen Cherylyn LeBon saw when she recently booked flights from Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas. After forking over $868 for four tickets, her airline asked if she wanted to pay an extra $4 to $15 per person for a guarantee to sit with her family.

She declined.

The airline, which shall remain nameless, didn’t take “no” for an answer.

“ARE YOU SURE?” demanded a pop-up window. “Ensure you aren’t separated from your pals or family. Prices may be higher at check-in.”

LeBon says the whole exchange was “bizarre.”

Parents may find it perplexing, but airlines have another word for it: profitable. And for years, there’s been a heated debate between families and air carriers. Families say they deserve to sit together without paying more; airlines want extra money to “guarantee” a seat assignment. Both sides seem far apart.

Maybe it’s time for an honest discussion about the issues.

The Airline Perspective: A la Carte Pricing at Its Best
Airlines believe their position on this issue is entirely reasonable. First, they say price-sensitive families pay the lowest fares and already enjoy many benefits, like carrying a lap-child under two for “free.” In order to offer these attractive prices, airlines have stripped their tickets of everything that they once included, such as advance seat assignments.

Airlines are also quick to point out that they make every effort to accommodate families traveling together. Flight attendants go out of their way to move passengers around when a family is separated. Airlines would say there are few, if any, cases of a parent and child being separated during a flight – and they would be correct.

The Parent Perspective: Seat Fees Are Extortion
Most parents feel as if they have a right to sit next to their offspring, particularly a toddler or a child with special needs. To deny them that right is unreasonable. When an airline asks for more money – and especially when the fee isn’t immediately disclosed at the point of purchase – they believe the airline is committing a form of extortion.

Parents say there’s nothing wrong with an airline making money, but threatening them with separation from their child goes a step too far, even for an airline. Many family travelers have voiced support for legislation that would compel an airline to seat families together at no additional charge.

Is there middle ground? Perhaps. The reality is that most family travelers are seated together on a plane – eventually. It is, of course, the “eventually” that worries moms and dads. They want a sure thing.

And that leads them to do exactly what LeBon did. She paid an extra $16 per passenger so she wasn’t separated from her offspring.

Maybe a good place to start is for airlines to more clearly state their internal policies, which are that they always do their best to seat families together. That may give parents a little more peace of mind.

Parents need to start familiarizing themselves with the new realities of air travel, too. Like it or not, nothing is included in the price of your airline ticket anymore.

For more about this on Elliott.org, click here.

Chris Elliott is a consumer advocate, multimedia journalist and customer service expert known for his practical advice and creative solutions to customer-service problems. He has used his skills as an investigative reporter and writer to help people do battle against user-unfriendly practices and stacked odds like those associated with anti-competitive mergers, junk fees, loyalty programs, invasive security, lack of privacy and lying labels.

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3 responses to “Time to Talk About Kids, Planes and Family Seat Assignments”

  1. Alys Place says:

    If I got stuck with someone else’s kid next to me I would volunteer to change seats with the parent. I wouldn’t want to be stuck babysitting on a 3 hour flight.

  2. Shannon Baas says:

    How can any airline justify separating parents from child? What happens if some perv molests that child due to your stupid rules.

  3. Carrie Anne says:

    – [families] already enjoy many benefits, like carrying a lap-child under two for “free.” –

    Only someone who hasn’t travelled with a child on their lap for a 4 hour flight would consider this a perk. It’s not like the airline is giving you a free seat. We have always paid an assigned seat fee to ensure at least one parent is sitting with the kids.

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