How Families Can Avoid Being Split Up On Airplanes

by on May 22, 2012 · 37 comments

in Elite Status, Family Travel

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Scott Mayerowitz of the Associated Press just wrote a story about family summer travel and how often families are split up on airplanes with individual members having to sit alone unless they pay fees to sit in preferred or premium seating (or even just to have a chance at seat selection before check-in). That could mean an extra $100 or more for a family of 4 who want to sit together, or at least near each other on the plane. What makes it worse is that airfares are on the rise for this summer and looking to be an average of 3% higher than last summer.

As an elite traveler, I have a hard time disagreeing that the best seats should be saved for the most loyal flyers or those willing to shell out. Airlines exist to make money and elite travelers make airlines a disproportionate amount of revenue and profit (A recent American Airlines executive said that 24% of their flyers make up 70% of revenue) – can you really blame them for trying to keep those lucrative flyers happy, especially since competing airlines are constantly trying to poach top flyers?

Though I can definitely imagine this must be frustrating to family travelers – especially trying to finagle seats together in a crowded and hectic gate area, where the gate agents are primarily focused on getting the flight out on time and not your in-flight comfort. If you are a family and you are unable to select seats together, I’d recommend the following things:

1) Check-in at 24 hours prior to departure. Often airlines will open up premium seats for anyone if they aren’t sold at that time.
2) Use to set seat alert notifications so if a seat opens up next to a family member (for example that passenger cancels their ticket) you will get an instant notification that it is available so you can go online and select it before anyone else. This also works for elites who want an exit row/premium seat, but they are all taken at the time of purchase.
3) Inquire at check-in at the airport to see if any seats are available. Often ticketing agents are less stressed than gate agents who are judged on getting the aircraft out on time.
4) Approach the gate agent before boarding to secure seats. Airlines generally keep the bulkheads available for passengers with disabilities or infants so if there are none, they can easily assign a family those seats. As always, friendliness (without blabbing too much and wasting their time) goes a long way.
5) Politely ask to switch on-board. Never try to force a switch – friendliness goes a long way, though you should understand if someone doesn’t want to move into your cramped middle seat (on that note, I never choose a middle seat because I’d rather gamble with a random assignment to a premium seat). The only downside to rolling the dice with a seat assignment is that you are in less of a position of power if the flight is oversold and they need to involuntarily bump people off of the flight.

Do you think it's fair for airlines to hold back seats for elite flyers and those willing to pay extra at the cost of families sitting together?

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  • LarryInNYC

    While I’m generally fine with airlines segmenting their fare structure and charging extra for various optional items (but not for “fuel”); I think refusing to seat small children with their parents without extorting an extra payment (a payment that it can be very difficult for an inexperienced flier to figure out how to make — “I don’t want premium seats, just a regular seat next to my child”) is going too far.
    This particular kind of charge both smacks of desperation on the part of the airline and has a tremendous negative effect on all the OTHER fliers who now need to deal with someone trying to remotely care for their child (or, more realistically, puts some other passenger who may even have paid for preferential seating in the unhappy position of having to switch seats or feel like a jerk).
    When this has happened to me (not often), I of course offer someone in the middle seat the option to swap for the window or aisle seat I had somewhere else. If that doesn’t work (and I haven’t had to do this yet), my plan is to take the air sickness bag out of the seat pocket, give it to my child, and say “Sweetheart, here’s the bag if you need it again. Please try to aim better this time.”

  • MummyBrown

    The safety aspect of this topic is what concerns me the most. How is a parent who is travelling with small children able to look after them if they are seated seperatly. Not only are there concerns if a child gets sick, needs to go to the bathroom or there are things like turbulence (you would hope someone would put an oxygen mask on your child) but would you let a stranger sit next to your child where you could not supervise?????

  • Mitch Cumstein

    This is almost identical content to the Mommy Points post on this topic last night (“Can Families Sit On Planes Together Without Paying More?”).

  • thepointsguy

    We were on the Oneworld Megado with Scott so I’m sure he emailed a bunch of people about the article. This was written yesterday afternoon and scheduled to post this morning so I’m not sure if you are insinuating that I copied MPs post, but I can assure you that’s not the case.

  • thepointsguy

    Great point.. They should have software that at least makes sure small children are seated next to their parents/legal guardians

  • Windycityf

    I think families with small children should be allowed to reserve sits together without the extra premium. But for adults that just want to be next to their travel companion, pay the premium, if necessary.

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  • infrequentflyer

    How about offering another passenger a cash payment to switch on board? Perhaps approximately the amount the premium seat selection would have cost? Have cash available!

  • daviez

    These are great tips to follow in getting those seats together. With the increase in implementation of these seat fees, I have noticed an increase in on-board seat shuffling. When there are children involved, the flight attendants always (in my experience) get involved. They make announcement requesting someone give up window/aisle to sit in middle seat usually in exchange for lots of thank yous and drinks/snacks throughout flight. I have not seen them tell someone they need to give up their seats but have waited a while for someone to give in. They also do this for older children if parents persist. The airline definition of small if usually under 5.

    I’m willing to just take my chances on shorter flights but will usually just pay the fee for longer flights if needed.

  • Mikes

    In this situation, I’d probably offer to buy someone a drink to move (and an equivalent seat). If they refused to move, I’d offer them 3 drinks and say “you’re gonna need it!”

    We have yet to run into this as we have been flying WN as long as the kids have had their own seats (8 months.) We board after A group and sit 3+1: I take the kids and the mommy sits across the aisle. We’ve been on at least a dozen legs and it hasn’t been an issue yet, even with full planes.

    We are considering a transatlantic Disney cruise next year with 3 or 4 legs over 2 days to get home (BCN to ABQ), so that might present an interesting challenge. Is this an issue with business class? I was probably going to go business class anyway for the extra 120k miles.

    I do suspect the FAA will get involved at some point at some point and require that children under X age to be seated with a parent. Really the airlines ought to do it since this is a liability nightmare if something were to happen. And then there is the PR nightmare when they have to kick a kid off the place for screaming constantly due to not being seated with their parents.

  • Mario

    Why? Do the adults love their companiion any less than the parents do their kids? No one is forced to fly with a child, at least domestically. I am not willing to pay higher fares so families can sit together for free.

  • Scott Mayerowitz

    I sent to story out to several folks I knew who I thought might be interested. Hope you guys enjoyed the topic. Always interested to see what people have to think.

  • Nelson Lopez

    I think there’s an etiquette to it as well. I had an overnight flight from NYC to Istanbul last year and via status, I was able to get bulkhead seats in the middle aisle. A woman had gotten one of the bulkhead seats next to me, and moved her children into the empty seats between us after take-off.

    The 3 year old proceeds to scream, whine, and physically bump me every couple of minutes preventing me from sleeping. After a while, noticing my frustration with her children, she asked me to find another seat to remedy the issue.

    That set me off and made me pissed off, especially since I am 6’3″ and require every inch of bulkhead/exit row space I can get. The onus is on her to either switch her kids to a row that is not going to annoy others on the plane or to switch seats with her offending child rather than asking me to go to the back of the plane to accomodate her.

    So yeah, I vote to keep elite seats (exits, bulkhead) for elites. Though no necessarily all window seats.

  • zshanlon

    I think your poll question answers are flawed:

    The question is “Is it fair for airlines to hold back seats for elite flyers and those willing to pay extra at the cost of families sitting together?”

    The answers are backwards. It should be “Yes, I earned my FF Status…” and “No, family comes first…”

  • Anniejones

    Nope. Safety of kids comes before your comfort. Kids have to be kept with their parents, for their own safety. Also, parents are able to better control their children, obviously, when in proximity to them. Why are we even debating this? May the family of the first child injured or abused on an airplane for not being near their protecting parent bankrupt the airline which forced them apart. My family of four flew upperclass on Virgin a few years back and they tried to force us apart, putting our children, then ages 3 and 6, and the 6 year old autistic, in seats on ther own. Ridiculous. My husband tried to reason with the ticket agent but he was dealt with arrogantly. It wasn’t until I lost my temper that anything changed. Any airline which attempts this is commiting criminal negligence, and any parent who tolerates it is allowing a faceless company to put their children at risk.

  • Jamiferrell

    As an attorney (and father of two), my first thought is what happens if your child is seated next to someone who touches a child inappropriately? Think of the lawsuits and onboard altercations that I’m guessing will one day occur. Not to mention the poor child who is hurt, just because of higher profits.

  • Scotti Mac

    As for #4: In my experience the ticket agent does not have control over seating families together, especially if they did not check in at the 24 Hour mark the day before. Most of the time they tell you you need to speak to the gate agent to facilitate the switch.

  • Mikes

    I don’t think that this is a question of safety, just simple consideration. The mother and kids would be together regardless of how they were arranged. I always try to put myself between the kids and other people. That is another reason that we travel 3+1 on WN: we take the entire row so nobody has to sit next to us. And I sit between my two 2YOs to help them behave.

  • Ns

    People like you should fly in cargo.

  • Dax

    Great point?

    Parents who focus on imaginary threats in the form of spooky strangers randomly attacking their children in public do a miserable disservice to the very targets they are trying to protect.

    Statistics have shown that the friends and family your children already know and trust are the threat they need to be aware of.

    The folks you willingly invite into your own home are far more likely to touch your kids than some random stranger on a plane.

    Sorry to pour some simple reality on this poorly reasoned threat.

    ACCUSATIONS of misconduct may eventually become common, but that has more to do with our societies questionable ethics and our broken legal system than it does with actual threats.

  • REL

    If parents have so many problems they can simply not fly and drive where they can control safety of their entire family.

  • NH

    Was this comment meant to be ironic? Humorous?

    By definition, your life is at much greater risk driving then flying. We now lose 30,000 people a year (down from 50,000) in car accidents whereas plane crashes are very, very,very rare.

  • Dax

    I’m very sorry to hear that you got your way after losing your cool and looking the fool.

  • carla

    US Airways was the first place I’ve seen this. We went to make seat reservations after getting our boarding information, only to discover the two outside seats down the middle are considered premium. (three family members are traveling together)

    Fortunately for us, an agent noticed we had full-fare tickets and was willing to work around the system to put the three of us together.

    The flight was filling up fast–there’s no way, if we had waited, that there would have been three seats together anywhere.

    Our daughters are both adults, but we enjoy their company–why wouldn’t we try to sit together on the flight?

    I definitely wouldn’t be a happy camper if my young children had to sit alone (and neither would anyone else on the flight when a parent wasn’t in the next seat to keep them calm and distracted.)

  • Dame Suzy

    First of all, book on the relevant airline to select your own seats – a bonus is that many airlines give you 24 hours to change your mind or cancel a mistake. Don’t wait till the last minute to try to get seats together. Also, if you are a group, you don’t have to sit right next to each other. One parent can sit with two kids, the other can be somewhere else, and they can switch midway through – how relaxing! Or choose two rows close together or something. No biggie. I would never ask someone to give up his/her premium seat. Pay for it or be flexible.

  • Asdf

    The problem is extending the “premium seats” metaphor to include all window or aisle seats – so the only non-premium seats are middle seats. Come on. What next? Only elites get to sit, everyone else has to stand?

    It’s fine to reward “elites” with the handful of best seats (ie bulkhead/exit rows). But to relgate everyone else to the absolute worst seats is ridiculous.

    Fix the business model, raise fares, quit taking every opportunity to make as many customers as miserable as possible in hopes of forcing a few of them to try and buy their way out of it.

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  • GuestQuest Vacations

    I don’t know. Teenagers may prefer to sit by themselves instead of with the entire family. It’s a great way to allow them to have some independence and freedom. I guess the bottom line is that if families want to sit together, they’ll have to pay the price until the airlines change their policies.

  • guest

    unfortunately, there’s a culture in this country that results in everyone thinking they’re special or different, and that they deserve to have special consideration because they ‘just do’. Airlines are not in the business of parsing out the rules so that ‘special’ people have ‘special’ rules that trump all other rules. People need to plan ahead when they travel, and many airlines show the seating charts for the flights people are contemplating selecting when they book. I sympathize with parents who fly with their children, but they are not ‘special’….most people have families and kids in the US so lack of planning does not mean that I get to give up a seat that I paid extra for/booked weeks in advance.

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  • JoeBlow

    I just found out about seat selection policy and I’m disgusted by the fact airlines are prepared to split young families and leave small kids sitting next to strangers. I was going to make a comment about it on this blog, but I sadly see too many anti family people here attacking those who believe families should be able to stick together. It’s against the law to leave children unattended in your home but it’s not in an airplane? It’s a disgusting concept and people who made those comments ridiculing parents who want to look after their kids on a plane should feel ashamed of themsleves.

  • Annoynmous

    Kids before comfort, yes that true, but if you aren’t disciplining you’re kid/kids. We’re going to have problems. People in planes adults included are going to feel like crap after being crammed in a tiny aircraft that they bought tickets for that cost a few hundred buck a pop. This is especially true to people who payed extra for there seats or people who don’t want to sit in an uncomfortable seats. IE middle. If its equal for equal, fine I’ll gladly switch, but if you’re rude/snarky, try to trick me, (like saying I got a window but instead had a middle seat), or even trying to pressure me by telling me to take care of their kid (lady I am not you’re babysitter, unless you’re paying me, I am NOT taking care of your kid) no deals off. Also its not nice to tell people how they should be feeling about themselves

  • nikki

    My response to the poll, they should hold back a few seats but not most of the seats on the plane. They should just have a few rows that are considered premium.

  • bcgirl

    Has anyone noticed that the answers to the poll are backward?

  • Courtney Kay

    i think there’s a middle ground… if tickets are bought together, they should be seated next to each other, and if that’s not possible due to the way the flight is booked, people should be told before purchase and given the opportunity to take their business elsewhere where they can get what they want. I think that loyalty goes a long way and should be rewarded, as well, so some preference should certainly be given to those passengers, but not to the extent that everyone else pay a price in not being able to sit with travelling companions—especially when children are involved! In no other place would someone expect a mother or father to be perfectly fine with letting their children be parted from them in an unknown place with strangers all around for the comfort of the rich. That is the strangest thing I have ever heard of, and we are all just expected to accept it and consider it a normal, reasonable request. Since we are at the mercy of the airlines if we want to vacation or see our families (in my case, the paltry once a year I can afford), there’s not a lot we can do, but I do think some consideration should be given to the average traveler as well as the elite.

  • kever

    Wow, you sound like a winner. Where else, in public and in commertial enterprises, is it ok to split up parents from their children? How is that asking to be “special”? Sitting with my 5 year old isn’t a nice-to-have, its a necessity.

  • kever

    US Airways is the worst offender in this aspect. Wife and I have flown on a few flights with our 5 and 7 year old with them. Can’t get seats together 1 weeks, 4 days, 2 days, etc… ahead of time. What does the gate agent do? Give us a blank stare and say we’ll have to negotiate on the plane with other passengers! Sitting with your kids isn’t a luxury its a necessity. Where else is it permissible in public for a company to intentionally seperate parents from their kids?

    This is why laws are made. I can see the need for a law some day to force airlines to allow families to sit together, at least ones with small children.

    This is cold, heartless, and reckless.

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