Are new airline fees anti-family?

Kids, to the end of the line! / Photo by nivek hmng - Flickr
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the airline industry crossed yet another line just before the Memorial Day holiday, the traditional start of the busy summer travel season.

Several media outlets reported that airlines are reserving more window and aisle seats for passengers willing to pay between $25 and $59 extra, which means that family members who don’t cough up the money might not be able to sit together. At the peak of the summer travel season, the reports breathlessly suggested, flying as a family might be nearly impossible.

The revelations drew a predictable response from consumer groups and at least one legislator. The Consumer Travel Alliance, an organization that I helped found and continue to serve as a volunteer advocate, issued a press release asking whether airlines “hate” families.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the airline industry to stop charging families seat reservation fees. “Children need access to their parents, and parents need access to their children,” the senator said in a prepared statement. “Unnecessary airline fees shouldn’t serve as a literal barrier between mother and child.”

I’ve been following this issue with some concern for several years, ever since many airlines started charging separately for confirmed seat reservations as a way to boost revenue when fuel prices were hitting record highs. As the father of three young children, I take a keen personal interest in the issue. Although being separated from my kids on a long flight appeals to me on one level, I am sensitive to the fact that it could be another passenger’s worst nightmare. So are air carriers.

“Airlines have always worked cooperatively with their customers to seat parties, including those traveling with children, together,” says Steve Lott, a spokesman for the airline trade group Airlines for America. “That has not changed.”

At the same time, Lott defended the industry’s current practices, which vary widely. Some carriers, such as Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways, allow families to board early but charge extra for more desirable economy-class seats. Others, such as US Airways, permit elite-level passengers to board first and give priority to families but also charge for certain economy-class seat reservations. And other air carriers don’t allow families to board early unless they’re elite-level frequent fliers or are willing to pay for the privilege. Among them: American Airlines and United.

“In a market as intensely competitive as the airline industry, the customer wins, having ultimate ability to vote with their spending on varying products that are priced differently,” Lott adds. As a practical matter, airlines say, they do everything they can to keep families together while they’re on board.

“Our agents at the airport often scan the group that is in the lounge, waiting to see if any among them may need extra time or assistance,” says Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines. Having a family isn’t enough to get you on the plane early, but it can help, he adds. Patricia Mankin, an Escondido, Calif.-based travel agent, says that in her two decades of booking air travel on behalf of families with young children, she has never seen one split up. “Airlines that don’t offer advanced seating have always seated children with their parents if they are made aware in advance of the child’s age,” she told me.

I reviewed my own records, and although I saw a fair number of complaints from passengers who were unhappy with seat reservation fees — including several traveling with children — a search for parents who had actually been separated from their kids on board turned up nothing. But my colleague Eileen Ogintz, who writes a nationally syndicated column about family travel called Taking the Kids, says that this is a “huge” issue. “I hear from parents all the time, complaining,” she says. “And they have a right to complain. This is ridiculous!”

Parents want assurances that they will be able to sit with their children. Ogintz recently worked with Schumer’s office to help one of his constituents ensure that she could fly beside her autistic twins, for example. Airlines shouldn’t need to bend a rule to make that possible. They ought to do it because their policy, federal regulation or the law requires it, Ogintz and other travel advocates say.

The easiest fix — and maybe the most logical one — is responsible parenting. There are a few proven ways parents can make sure that their families sit together, such as working with a travel agent with preferred access to seats or letting an airline know in advance that they’re traveling with young children. Even if a family is broken up, a group can show up at the airport a little early and ask a gate agent to seat them together. Agents know from experience that toddlers and strangers don’t make good seatmates. They make every effort to shuffle seat assignments.

Another possible remedy is to ask the Transportation Department to issue new guidance for airlines on the matter of separating children from their parents, something Schumer suggested in a letter last week to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. If that’s not possible, the issue might get taken up by Congress, although the airline industry probably would fight any resulting legislation.

Creating a new law could create new problems, as Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, points out. Lawmakers would have to define what they mean by “family” and “children” and even “seated together.” Politically, that could be a slippery slope. “Trying to legislate family-friendly behavior by airlines would be as easy as trying to keep 3- and 4-year-olds from fighting,” Leocha says.

He adds that no, he doesn’t believe that airlines “hate” families, but he thinks that they could do a much better job of assuring worried parents that they will be able to sit with their children. Airlines aren’t holding the seats hostage, he says; they’re playing a game of “chicken” with passengers.

And they’re hoping that you’ll blink first.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    I think they were just late arriving to the gate. They had definitely been running.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Very interesting. I didn’t know that safety seats had to be in the windows. Hmm.

  • MarkieA

    Let me ask, Are you willing to pay that person the extra dollars for his/her seat?

  • TonyA_says

    There you go Jennifer, if we cannot stand the suspense (wait to get seats at airport) or do not want to risk getting separated; then we pay and BUY peace of mind. I’d do the same (pay) if it was that important to me. I think the UNFRIENDLINESS is due to the fact that some parents don’t want to pay (or are willing to steal seats that others paid for).

  • TonyA_says

    Or do think they are just selling almost everything they can to the highest bidder?

  • TonyA_says

    Reserve adjoining seats. A CRS must be placed in a window seat
    so it will not block the escape path
    in an emergency. A CRS may not
    be placed in an exit row.

    http://www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/crs/ 

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Compare the costs of paying preferred seating fees for four to the cost of driving (both in terms of gas and time) those four instead.  (Contiguous 48 states, of course.)  Not sure that preferred seating fees are that “cost-prohibitive” in comparison.

  • technomage1

    They’re moving towards a pricing model like sports events or the theater – better seats for more money.  That’s a free market.  And just like sports or the theater, if you want that seat, you pay the price for it.  No one shows up and a sporting event having booked 2 tickets in the $20 seats and 2 tickets in the $150 seats and then demanding that 2 people in the $150 section move to the $20 seats so that their family can sit together.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NERN43VXPSNKIY3BG5U7GISC7Q Ellen

    Don’t be so certain. Even in the old days, it almost happened to me. In 1990, I flew to St. Louis with a six month old lap child and a three year old. We had advance seating but something happened and we were told when we arrived at the gate that we would need new boarding passes. The flight was full and they gave me a middle seat three rows behind the three year old. The gate agent asked for volunteers but it was almost entirely a business flight and she got no takers.  She said it could be fixed on the plane.

    On the plane, the flight attendant asked but she had no volunteers either.  Luckily, my three year old was a seasoned traveler so I did not make a fuss and counted on something else.  I settled her into her seat. I gave her some books and some crayons. I also told her where I would be and that the nice gentlemen next to her would help her if she needed the flight attendant or could not reach her backpack.

    “You’re not leaving her here,” the men beside her practically wailed.  I assured them that she was a good traveller (which was no lie as she was better than I have ever been) and that I had no choice because no one was willing to give up a seat. They huffed and puffed and I moved toward my own seat with the baby. In a few moments, one of them came back and traded seats. My three year old later explained that they had flipped a coin to decide which one had to change seats.

  • BMG4ME

    At least they give you an option to pay at all – unlike me, who cannot eat a meal in first class because they no longer offer special meals in first class domestic, even when a regular meal is offered to everyone else – even if you want to pay.

  • bodega3

    BINGO!

  • Sadie_Cee

    I love you too.

  • Sadie_Cee

    Right on…it seems to me that people who cause others to have to give up their seats for them because they did not pay for pre-assigned seats are acutally having their travel costs subsidized by the displaced people.

  • flutiefan

     my company REQUIRES that we ask for proof of the age when they have a lap child. now, if the kid is clearly a few months old and the parent either forgot or claimed they were “never told”, we can use reasonable judgment and advise about the regulations in the future. if there’s any doubt… NOPE. either get the proof or pay for a ticket. none of this 2- and 3-year-olds sitting on laps business on our watch. [not that i’ve ever witnessed, anyway… even though EVERY SINGLE TIME a parent tries, they claim “they didn’t ask for it last time”. either (a) the last time you flew the kid was obviously an infant, (b) you flew another airline that doesn’t verify this stuff, which is not cool, or (c) you’re lying.]

  • flutiefan

     just for clarification, the FAA is who has made the regulation that children under 2 can fly on laps. airlines would MUCH rather have that revenue, too!
    but the FAA insists on the theory, as you said, that families would stop flying and drive.
    otherwise, in this entire debate, you are spot-on.

  • flutiefan

     just like TonyA, i need you to STOP MAKING SENSE!!!
    ;)

  • Michael__K

    Yes, though they make an exception if the blocked passenger is a family member or caregiver.

    My wife and I have been allowed to put our car seat-strapped toddler in the middle seat so we could sit on either side of him.

  • Michael__K

    Part of the problem is that even paying for “premium” gives you no rights under the contracts of carriage.  Seating is still not guaranteed no matter what you paid for preferential seating.

    When I’m traveling with my under 5 year old kids, I want to sit with them regardless of where it is.  The non-reclining last row of the aircraft next to the restroom is fine and is far preferable to being in separate rows anywhere else.

  • Michael__K

    Passengers can “cough up the dough” but it guarantees them nothing.

    If you read the contract, you can still be denied the seats you paid for and you have no recourse when that happens.  You might not even be entitled to a refund of the dough you coughed up.

    If you want to talk about “entitlement attitudes” lets start with the authors of those contracts who think they can collect your money for empty promises.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Thanks for clarifying that for me. :)

  • Michael__K

    Why should families be excused from paying a fee that is imposed on all other travelers that wish to sit in a particular place or in a particular seating configuration

    Because families with very small children often aren’t concerned with sitting in one of those particular places that costs extra.  They just don’t want their toddler separated from them.

    If they are happy with the non-reclining row at the rear of the plane, or they are happy with 3-middle seats in the center portion of a 2-5-2 configuration, then why should they be forced to pay for a “premium” seat, that is not even contractually guaranteed anyway?

    What happens to families that have a lap child that find out the seat they purchased is precluded to lap children?  (I’ve discovered that 50+% of seats are precluded on some aircraft, and there are often no hard controls to prevent you from booking them).

  • Michael__K

    Also lap children are  often restricted to certain regions of the aircraft (sometimes less than half the seats on the plane are eligible) because of safety requirements such as extra oxygen masks.

    And yet you can book an ineligible seat if you don’t know better and not find out until you reach the airport.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Awesome! On one flight, the “lap child” behind me must’ve been in kindergarten! :/

  • Michael__K

    I thought the early boarding was designed to help assure that the plane departed on time, which affects the carriers’ bottom line.

    If a family has a kid or two who need to be carried, and a car seat or two, and a stroller or two, and toys, and baby food, and diapers that need to be handy, they will take slightly longer than the average single passenger to get properly buckled into their seats so the flight can depart.

    This isn’t an issue on trains and buses. 

    If you don’t mind your flight taking off a couple of minutes later, then by all means, have the families board last.

  • Michael__K

    Bad analogy.

    Theaters and sports teams don’t oversell their seating inventory and they generally force their customers to fill the available sections contiguously.  So they don’t wind up in a situation where the $20 section is 40% empty but yet it’s impossible to get 4 seats together.

    And your seats are actually guaranteed at most theaters, stadiums, and arenas.

  • TonyA_says

     I don’t think any airline will guarantee a specific seat (Row and seat #).

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    1) I don’t believe in lap children on planes.  I consider it tantamount to child abuse.  I don’t know of any state in the Union that allows children to ride on their parent’s lap in a car.  Similarly, the very occasional hazards of flying constitute a real danger to a child.  What’s a child’s life worth?  The price of an airline ticket?  For shame.
    2) I don’t consider the act of procreation a free pass to claiming seats for less money than others have to pay.  You want your toddler to sit next to you?  Your wife?  Your aged mother? Your disabled companion?  Whomever?  Pay up.  The advertised price is just a come-on.  That’s the real disgrace, right there.

    And before you start, I’ve raised two children to responsible adulthood. 

  • Michael__K

    Taking the stance that small kids — who need extra leg room the least — should  depend on the premium “extra leg room” rows in order to sit with their parents is not only family unfriendly, its even  unfriendly to anyone who actually wants to pay for extra leg room, but may not be able to if the families take the “responsibility” you want them to and gobble up those rows.

  • Michael__K

    Exactly.

    That’s why  paying extra to sit together is not even a solution.

  • bodega3

    Yes, the system does recognize it as I have booked it for clients myself in the GDS.  I look at the seat map before hand to see that two seats together are available.  Never a problem.  Not sure why online it is, but then you are not looking at live inventory which is probably part of the problem.

  • Michael__K

    1) Mothers don’t nurse in a (moving) car either.  Some babies don’t take well to cars and are much happier in their parents arms then in a car seat.  It’s an apples and oranges comparison and one size does not fit all.

    And even when you do pay for a separate seat for your infant you still have a seating problem: As liz pointed out, you must have a window seat.  But if you don’t know, the carrier generally won’t prevent you from selecting (or paying extra) for something else, even though they know the infant’s DOB these days.

    2) How many people who sit in “premium” seats paid anything extra for them?  If we’re talking about aisle seats, those are at least 1/3rd of the seats on the aircraft, more on the large jets.  Do you really think  33+% of the passengers on a flight are going to pay $60 extra to sit in an aisle seat?  If not, who should sit in those aisle seats?

    And then what happens if you paid for “extra leg room” that you didn’t really care about just so you can sit together and you are split up anyway because of the carrier moving you either to meet one of various legal requirements or because of irregular operations or because of over-booking?  You aren’t necessarily even due a refund according to the contract.

  • TiaMa

    Agreed.  I may sound anti-family (I’m not), but while I empathize with their situation, if I’m making a reservation and decide to splurge and fork out the extra dough for my window seat, that’s my right, like it’s yours to book early and pay for your aisle seat.

    I understand the underlying issue of charging for premium seats for families traveling together, but to change those policies just for families and leave solo travelers paying for premium seats would not be right at all either.  But whoever said the airlines were right.  The best thing would be to eliminated the concept of “premium” seating altogether.  You have economy, business and first (or whatever vernacular they use) – leave it at that.

    I agree it becomes problematic if there’s a situation that requires a change of equipment and seat reservations get thrown out the window.

  • emanon256

    I don’t men to sound snarky, but if he is required by law to be 1. In his own seat, 2. In an FAA approved restraint (car seat), and 3. In a Window seat.  How is the argument valid that it does not make sense for you to have to pay extra for a window seat since it’s required by law?  You have to pay for the car seat, which is required by law, and you have to pay for the additional seat as well?  How does the line get drawn on paying for the window seat?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Proverbs 26:4. 

  • pauletteb

    I’ve never understood why parents feel they should get special treatment because they chose to have kids. (And, yes, I’m a parent.)

  • pauletteb

    I too usually fly solo.  I either book a window seat well in advance or pay the extra $10 each way for “early bird” seating to ensure an “A” boarding pass and a window on Southwest.  I also get to the airport at least an hour earlier than I have to. I AM NOT giving up my window seat to reward someone else’s parsimony or tardiness, especially not for the bimbo who asked me to switch to a middle seat because her little darling wanted to look at the clouds.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Great story. Splitting up families, particularly when there are small kids involved, doesn’t benefit anybody. I’ve seen people decline to swap seats and it rarely works out great for them because there’s always some toy or snack that needs to be passed over them, or the child needs to ask mommy or daddy something.

  • sershev

    If you travel with someone who requires assistance in case of emergency (a child or disable adult), airline will accommodate you. However, both parents may not necessary be seated next to a child on a flight. Since most travelers are usually trying to save on airfare, premium seating are usually have better availability. Therefore when you book your flight and you want all of your family members seat next to each other you may want to consider paying for extra for a specific seating option. I don’t see why United for instance should give away their economy plus seats (extra leg room), because technically they could squeeze more seats but they are giving us an option to pay for an extra comfort.

  • judyserienagy

    “Although being separated from my kids on a long flight appeals to me on one level, I am sensitive to the fact that it could be another passenger’s worst nightmare. So are air carriers.”  This is a REALLY FUNNY line!!

  • Lindabator

    Agree with you 10000%!!!  

  • Lindabator

    Again – that sense of “entitlement”

  • Lindabator

    And a call to the airline’s medical desk can clear up problems like that fairly quickly

  • Lindabator

    BS – just because they DO NOT WANT TO PAY, doesn’t give them more rights than the rest of us – you want those premium seats up front, instead of the freebies in back – PAY FOR THEM! 

  • Lindabator

    Hallelujah!

  • Steve_in_WI

    Call me anti-family if you want, but when it comes to fees for aisle and window seats (something I’m not a fan of in general), either they should apply to everyone or to no one.

  • Frequentfliermom

    From now on I will book all my flights international flights on european airlines, and make sure I still get credit by using (in my case, United’s) partners. All american airlines (with the exception of SouthWest) have gone straight downhill when it comes to customer service. It is a disgrace, how the consumer is being treated in the skies!

  • Frequentfliermom

    I agree with most, except that flying is not a privilege. It is a service that we pay for. As consumers, we should have rights. Not to take away, what others have paid for, but fair treatment for all. Families with children have to pay what is cost to sit together, but even so I know that the airlines change seats last minute. My main concern with separating families, is that it would cause absolute mayhem in case of an emergency. You ask any mother, if they would get off the plane without their children!

  • Frequentfliermom

    No, airlines do not love families. They love business fliers. That is where they make their money, and business people are the ones “subsidizing” your economy fares!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/I7IMZ3YDVVSRJJHQO22KKDTKSI Emo Babe

    We recently traveled on United Airlines and they expected my three-year old son to sit alone. We booked the flight 8 months ahead and paid extra to upgrade and secure seats together, but at the last minute they cancelled our flight and booked us on an overbooked flight. While you might think people will willing switch seats, that’s not always the case. We had to beg people to switch so my three-year old wouldn’t be forced to sit alone, get scared and cry so hard he would throw up on people… NOT so family friendly. The ticket agent just kept saying, “sorry, there is nothing we can do”.

  • dmcreif

    Boy. I’m sure that that family was blacklisted from future CO and UA flights.