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Modern air travel is a marvel of technology and innovation, with powerful computer systems performing millions of calculations per second to keep it all airborne. But most of us only think of commercial airline reservation systems when something goes wrong, as they seemingly do at the most inopportune times. For adults, seat assignment changes fall somewhere on the spectrum of mildly amusing to irritating. But when flying with young children, seat assignment changes can become a serious source of stress as very young kids need to fly next to a parent or guardian.

As we head into the holiday travel season, let this frequent-flying family’s experience with Delta’s seat assignment system serve as both a cautionary tale and a lesson.

Photo courtesy of the Gamble family

Act One: The 3-Year-Old Moved Away from Parents in Economy

Over the summer, Jeanette Gamble and her husband booked a round-trip itinerary from New York to Ireland via Boston to visit family and attend a wedding, with three-year-old Amelia in tow. Jeanette, who has Gold Medallion elite status with Delta, booked the family’s tickets and selected open row 19 for the Dublin–Boston leg of the return trip. A reservations agent later recommended that the family split their reservation into separate itineraries so that Jeanette’s elite status would make Amelia eligible for complimentary seat upgrades as well.

About a week before the family’s return flight to New York on October 16, Jeanette checked the family’s pre-booked seat assignments — a savvy traveler move, as airlines can and do periodically change seat assignments without prior notice. That’s when she realized that the Delta reservations system had originally allowed her to book exit row seats on the scheduled Boeing 757 aircraft, despite Amelia’s SkyMiles account bearing her birth date, and thus, her age. At some point in the process, the system caught on to the age discrepancy and moved Amelia to a separate row, recognizing that travelers under the age of 15 are not able to assist with exit row responsibilities in case of emergency.

But the algorithm’s logic fell short, failing to account for the fact that a child too young to operate an exit row door was also too young to be seated apart from a traveling caregiver. As a result, Jeanette and her husband were now scheduled to remain in their Delta Comfort+ exit row seats in row 19… while three-year-old Amelia would be seated alone in economy row 25. 

Solutions Didn’t Come Easily Due to Unavailable Seats

Naturally, the parents reached out to Delta to resolve the issue before the travel date. However, neither Twitter nor the phone agents were able to help, repeatedly telling the Gambles that most seats were locked and unavailable for reassignment. The agents advised the parents to ask gate agents at the airport to make a last-minute change, which does little to reduce stress leading up to a big flight.

“For anyone traveling with a toddler, it’s important to tag team if you can, so after booking those seats in advance, we were pretty upset,” Jeanette told TPG. The parents continued to stress over the issue for the remainder of the week, with an additional hiccup the day before the flight: Jeanette, a permanent resident of the US, was not allowed check in for the flight online without proof onward travel. This is an automatic check built into the reservation system which can be manually overridden by an airline representative; however, this effectively split the family three ways: Jeanette, whose reservation was tethered to Amelia’s, was not checked in, while her husband and Amelia were both checked in for the flight, but with no linked connection between their two itineraries.

The family eventually boarded the Dublin to Boston flight together, and discovered that “all that upset and worry was for nothing” when the other seat in row 25 was “magically free” on the day of travel. “We fixed it ourselves on the app,” Jeanette told TPG. 

Preschooler Scores First Class Upgrade, Parents Left in Coach

But the fiasco wasn’t over yet: on the final one-hour flight between Boston and JFK, the family found that Amelia had been separated from her parents yet again. This time, the three-year-old had been upgraded to first class while Jeanette and her husband were still in Delta Comfort+.

At this point, the family had no more desire to tangle with customer service once again. “To make sure we kept the seat, we just went along with it,” Jeanette said. “I just sat down in Amelia’s seat, and my husband continued on to the Comfort+ seat with her. No one was any the wiser.”

The Gambles said that Delta has not directly addressed the seat assignment snafu in subsequent communication, although the airline has awarded the family some compensatory frequent flier miles for separate issues related to the flight. Instead, Delta simply apologized for the technical error regarding Amelia’s booking separations.

A spokesperson for Delta told TPG, “Delta’s intent to ensure that all ticketed passengers on the same record are seated together, especially families. When that doesn’t happen prior to boarding, flight attendants, as they are able, will work to resolve the situation.”

Delta came under fire for a similar issue earlier this year after actress Busy Philipps tweeted in June, “Hey @Delta! Thanks for cancelling my flight and then rerouting us and separating my MINOR child onto a different flight than mine and having a 2 HR call time wait! You are terrible!” According to a Delta statement to Fox News, Philipps had been separated from her nine-year-old daughter, Birdie, due to mother and daughter having been booked under separate itineraries. Philipps and Birdie were erroneously rebooked onto separate flights headed in different directions after their original flight was canceled and travelers were rerouted. Mother and daughter eventually made it onto the same flight, but not until 2:30am after hours of wrangling and working on alternate travel arrangements.

Bottom Line

Airline computer systems are complicated, but sometimes they aren’t complex enough to root out solutions to seemingly simple problems. As always, keep a close eye on those seat reservations, note the exit rows and associated age restrictions and be persistent with seeking out a solution if a seating issue arises for your family. Also know that sometimes airlines elite status and complimentary upgrades can make your family’s seating life harder, not easier.

All photographs courtesy of the Gamble family.

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