Why is it so hard for airlines to seat families together?

Nov 25, 2019

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The inability (or unwillingness) of airlines to seat families together has been a hot button topic for many years. The Families Flying Together Act, which requires children 12 and younger to be seated near a parent, was passed in 2016, but the FAA still isn’t enforcing it. We continue to hear crazy stories in the news, like last year, when a 3-year-old was upgraded to first class while her parents were left in coach.

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Senator Chuck Schumer, who has followed this issue for years, isn’t backing down. He wants things to change, and is bringing the issue to light once again.

This past weekend, Schumer said in a statement to U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, “With the holiday travel season upon us, I urge you to establish a policy to ensure that children 13 and under will not be seated apart from their parents on commercial aircraft,” according to a press release from his office.

Related: The best airlines for families

He went on to cite a report from nonprofit Consumer Reports that found that between Mar. 2016 and Nov. 2018, 136 complaints were filed against airlines for separating parents from children. While the Department of Transportation hasn’t acted due to the “low number” of complaints, Schumer argues, “even one instance of a young child being separated from their family on a commercial flight is unacceptable and quite frankly, disturbing.”

And travelers can encounter different experiences with different airlines. American Airlines, for example, told TPG it had a process in place to ensure children up to the age of 15 will be seated next to an adult.

“For families traveling with a child under the age of 15 who don’t have a seat assignment, our system will work to seat the child with an adult in the reservation starting 48-hours after the reservation is ticketed,” a spokesperson from American told TPG in an email, who added this also applies to basic economy fares. “This ensures the child will not be assigned a seat alone … Additionally, we block seats on flights for airport control. This enables our airport team members to move people around, as needed, at the gate. This is helpful in case families book at the last minute, [are rebooked] due to irregular operations, etc.”

Southwest does not assign seats, but that actually works to the advantage of some families with young children. Families with children under seven are allowed to board immediately after priority boarding – on Southwest called “A group boarding.” 

Delta and United have even murkier policies. On its website, United says, “[we strive] to seat children under age 15 with an accompanying adult family member,” adding, “To have the best likelihood of children being seated with an accompanying adult, we recommend booking early and selecting seat assignments when you book.” And Delta’s so-called Family Seating Policy says: “Delta strives to seat family members together upon request.”

I, for one, can’t understand why it’s taken airlines so long to work this out. They take every passenger’s birth date at the time of booking, so it should be easy to tell when they’ve seated a 3 year old by themselves, aisles away from their adult companion. An airline employee even went as far as to tell me, recently, that I shouldn’t have booked basic economy tickets because I was traveling with a toddler. Should I be forced to pay $70 more per ticket because I’m traveling with a child, to ensure our seating assignments? That feels a little discriminatory to me.

To be honest, there are times when I’d love to pass my toddler off to an unwitting passenger (I’m kidding, of course). But how is that even fair to the other passengers on board? Wouldn’t you rather be reseated than sit next to my squirmy kid? Sitting families together just makes sense.

If you’re a traveling family, be sure to check out our tips for ensuring your family gets seated together on a flight.

Featured photo by FamVeld/Shutterstock.

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