Airlines Not Assigning Families Seats Together

May 13, 2015

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If the #1 complaint non-families often have about flying families is crying or misbehaving children, the #1 complaint by flying families is often that the airlines are sometimes less than helpful in seating families appropriately. This is not a new issue, but it is one that is worth repeating because I can’t emphasize enough how important airline seat assignments are for families with young children.

This issue resurfaced this week via a blog post from Sword and the Script when a father flying Delta Airlines had to pay $88 to get a seat assignment next to his four-year-old. That post was then picked up by various media outlets including Yahoo here. For what it’s worth, he could have just as easily likely been on any US airline and faced a very similar problem as this is not a Delta specific issue.

From what I have gathered, he booked the tickets a few days before departure and there were no complimentary options to get two seats together even though lots of seats were available for assignment on the plane. At check-in at the airport he explained the situation to the check-in agents who said all they could do was get them together in a premium row for $88. They indicated the gate agent might be able to do it at no charge, but the father paid the $88 at check-in to avoid potentially having to not sit next to his four-year-old.

Some will point fingers at the father saying he should have booked farther in advance, he should have booked a different flight if he couldn’t get the seats he wanted together on that flight, he shouldn’t have waited until the day of departure to address the issue, or he should just “suck it up” and pay the $88 to sit next to his daughter without complaint because families shouldn’t be given special treatment not afforded to anyone else that wants to sit together. In the end, no one wins if parents can’t sit next to their young children, or if airlines push the issue off until the parents are on-board having to beg other passengers to trade seats with them. There is no doubt (in my mind) that a parent should be assigned a seat next to their young child without any additional fee, assuming a seat assignment is available.

The specifics of these seat assignment stories will vary, but there are common themes, and even I have recently had to deal with a similar seating issue with US Airways thanks to an aircraft swap that ultimately was resolved over the phone in advance of the flight without additional fees, but not without a fight and multiple phone calls.

So, like I have written before, the logistic that traveling families should be most concerned about ahead of their trip is whether the have seat assignments together.

How to Ensure Your Family has Seats Together on the Plane:

There is no way to 100% ensure your family has seats together, but there are ways to dramatically increase the odds of success. Here are ten tips that I have shared before on how to ensure your family has seats together on the plane.

1.  Internalize that it is your job to make sure your family has seats together, not the airline’s job. Whether or not it should be that way doesn’t matter. Make it your mission to secure seats together for your family, and keep an eye on your reservation until you are safely buckled in and ready for take-off.

2.  Make sure you get seat assignments together at the time the reservation is made. If you aren’t able to do this at the time of booking online then immediately call the airline and secure seat assignments over the phone. If the agent you speak to won’t assign you a seat next to your young child then politely ask for a supervisor, or hang up and call back. If there are still seats together available on the plane you will often eventually get someone to assign them to you.

3.  Check your reservation again shortly after it is made to ensure your seat assignments “stuck”.

4.  Make flight bookings for your family well in advance, if possible, as last minute reservations are more likely to have problems with seat assignments due to the plane already being full of passengers, especially in the “non-premium” rows.

5.  If you can’t get complimentary seat assignments together even after talking to the airline and explaining your “small child” situation, then be ready to open your wallet. Often times there will be “premium economy” seats available for sale even when the complimentary economy seats are already assigned.  This is not the time be frugal in my view as the dollars it costs to secure seats together for your family are well worth skipping the stress that you may face on the day of your trip when you may be begging for strangers to take pity on you and trade seats. Again, I don’t think you should have to pay to sit next to your kid, but sometimes it is the path of least resistance.

6.  Monitor your reservation at least monthly leading up to the trip to be sure that your seat assignments haven’t changed. This is especially true if your reservation has a schedule change or an aircraft type substitution, as that is when seat assignments can often go askew.

7.  If you are flying Southwest (who does not offer seat assignments), seriously consider paying the extra for Early Bird Check-In. This way you are automatically given a boarding group 36 hours in advance, and it will almost always be in the A group. Otherwise, be sure to check-in exactly 24 hours in advance to get as high of a boarding number as possible. Families with children 6 and under can board during “family boarding” between the A and B groups, so that is another option if your kid falls in that age range.

8.  The week of the trip is a great time to try and snag seats together if you don’t already have them as elite flyers get upgraded out of economy or travelers change their plans. The 24 hour mark is another very good time to check the seat assignment map, though I don’t recommend waiting this long to secure seats together if having them is imperative for your traveling success.

9.  Plead your situation to the gate agent before boarding and flight attendant at the time of boarding, but be nice and don’t blame them for your seats not being together. It is not their fault that your seats are separate and you are relying on their help. If the plane is full they may not be able to get you seats together, but even getting something decent to barter with, such as two aisle seats, can really help.

10.  Beg fellow passengers in a nice and sincere way on-board. If you have gotten this far without seats together then something really went wrong, and you are now relying on the generosity of strangers. Hopefully you have an aisle seat or similar to barter with. If you are asking someone to trade an aisle for your middle at the back of the plane, be ready to sweeten the pot. Offer an on-board drink, a gift card, or even cash. I’m serious. Desperate times should call for bribery and many thank-yous.

Are Regulations Needed:

I’m not one who jumps to thinking we need more regulation in our lives, but truthfully there should probably be something in place from the FAA stating that children (at least) under the age of 5 must be seated next to a caregiver for emergency purposes. In reality I would like to think my 5, 6, or 7 year old would also be seated next to me, but since you can fly as an unaccompanied minor starting at age 5 on most US airlines, it is probably the logical cut-off age if there is an age-based regulation at some point (though the unaccompanied minor age is actually not a FAA regulation). There are age based regulations for the emergency exit row (age 15), so it wouldn’t be the first time age has made its way into an FAA passenger seating regulation.

Apart from any official government mandated regulations, airlines really should take the opportunity to firm up their policies on this issue. I can’t imagine they like getting drug into the media spotlight over families seating issues time and time again. Since there are so few rows on many planes that are available for courtesy assignment these days, and in the US we are seeing more carriers operate that charge for seats together in any row, this is an area that probably needs some attention and clarification in a way that it didn’t when planes were less full and economy seats were all treated the same. I’m all for capitalism and the airline’s right to make some extra cash by charging for premium economy rows, but not at the expense of splitting a caregiver from a young child.

Update: In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring airlines to seat families with children 13 and under together without additional fees, but the Transportation Department hasn’t given teeth to the regulation, so everything in this article remains my best advice to sit with your children on the airplane.

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