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Will Airlines in Canada Seat Parents With Their Children ... for Free?

Dec. 28, 2018
7 min read
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Families had reason to celebrate when Canada announced its Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). Government officials noted how the proposed legislation would hold airlines accountable and provide a better travel experience for all passengers. The APPR caught the attention of TPG Family because it seems family-friendly, especially in light of the lack of progress on similar protections in the US.

In 2016, the US attempted to make family travel friendlier with the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Though the effort ultimately wasn't all that successful, Congress did draft language in anticipation of regulations to require airlines to seat parents and children together. The Canadian version was reported to go further than the US effort. Now that the language of the Canadian APPR has been released, we wanted to see if it actually would protect families from having to pay extra just to sit together.

Canadian Air Passenger Protection Regulations Draft Text

The Canadian Transportation Agency published the draft text late last week. If you're looking for some light reading, you can review all 19,000 words of it on the Canadian Gazette. To save you some time, here's the relevant language that references parents sitting with their children on an aircraft:

22 (1) In order to facilitate the seating of a child who is under the age of 14 years in close proximity to a parent, guardian or tutor in accordance with subsection (2), a carrier must
  • (a) assign seats before check-in at no additional charge to a child under the age of 14 and their parent, guardian or tutor; and

It starts out really well, doesn't it? The first few sentences are very promising. Unfortunately, it is downhill from there:

  • (b) if the carrier does not assign seats in accordance with paragraph (a), do the following:
  • (i) advise passengers before check-in that the carrier will facilitate seat assignment of the child in close proximity to a parent, guardian or tutor at no additional charge at the time of check-in or at the boarding gate,
  • (ii) assign seats at the time of check-in, if possible,
  • (iii) if it is not possible to assign seats at the time of check-in, request that other passengers volunteer to change seats at the time of boarding, and
  • (iv) if it is not possible to assign seats at the time of check-in and no passenger volunteers to change seats at the time of boarding, request that other passengers volunteer to change seats before takeoff.

Good news: The airlines are required to assign seats at no additional charge before check-in for children and their guardians to sit either together, or in close proximity.

Bad news: The language goes on to say that if the airline can't assign seats together for parents and children, then the airline needs to try to do so at check-in or before boarding. If that fails, the airline is required to ask for volunteers to change seats. If that fails, the airline is required to ask other passengers to volunteer to move. It's unclear who these other passengers are.

Worse news: It's pretty clear that after the airlines ask for volunteers and receive any, there is no penalty for further inaction for not keeping families together.

Also note that seated "nearby" does not have to mean directly next to a parent or guardian once the child is 5 years old. From 5 - 11 years the children would only have to be seated in the same row and separated by no more than a seat from their guardian (though I presume no one would want to sit in the seat between a 5 year old and their parent) and from 12 - 13 years of age, the children would need to be within two rows of a guardian.

FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016

The language Congress prepared in the US focuses more on notification about the availability of seating for children and their guardians as opposed to requiring they be seated together:

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(a) In General. — Not later than 15 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall complete such actions as may be necessary to require each covered air carrier and ticket agent to disclose to a consumer that if a reservation includes a child under the age of 13 traveling with an accompanying passenger who is age 13 or older —
(1) whether adjoining seats are available at no additional cost at the time of purchase; and
(2) if not, what the covered air carrier's policy is for accommodating adjoining seat requests at the time the consumer checks in for the flight or prior to departure.
(b) Requirements. — The disclosure under subsection (a) shall —
(1) if ticketing is done on an internet website or other online service, be prominently displayed to the consumer on that internet website or online service during the selection of seating or prior to the point of purchase; and
(2) if ticketing is done on the telephone, be expressly stated to the consumer during the telephone call and prior to the point of purchase.

From our family's perspective, the fact that the DOT couldn't manage to get language even this watered down into a formal policy shows the lack of concern around the need to require children to be seated with their parents.

Who Did It Better?

We were encouraged by the initial announcement by Canada's Transport Minister. But after reading the actual language, it's unclear how many airlines will invest in the necessary technology to provide guaranteed seating assignments for families. The proposed legislation, as written, doesn't require the seating options to be available online, so airlines could choose to require passengers to speak with an agent to secure seating assignments.

The US version focused more on notification rather than accommodation. Considering that United just joined the club of airlines charging for "preferred seating," it's unlikely that the language proposed by Congress would have resulted in airlines foregoing revenue to seat families together. Though, there are some airlines that are better than others for families. There at least appears to be a glimmer of hope that the Canadian version will encourage some airlines to do the right thing for families.

In some cases, things are already a bit better for families flying in Canada than the US as Air Canada provides complimentary seat assignments to parents and children under age 12 so they can "sit close to each other". This is typically done within 48 hours of booking.

Bottom Line

As written, without any penalties for non-compliance, it's likely that thoughtful airlines will attempt to make seating available for families flying to, from and within Canada. But without teeth to the language, we doubt that there's enough there to make most airlines significantly deviate from their current behavior. The Canadian legislation still isn't finalized, so teeth could get added along the way. Or, there could be an "extraction" to make the soft language even more toothless for family travelers. Unfortunately, we suspect the net result for most airlines won't be much change to the status quo.

Featured image by Air Canada's new livery, frequently seen on their Instagram account. (Image: Air Canada).