One senator and three special-interest groups are calling for regulation to ensure that small children aren’t separated from their parents on flights. But it’s not clear that the problem really exists.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) waded into the fray over airline fees, warning that parents could be forced to pay “additional fees” to ensure that they can sit with their children.
The senator held a press conference at which he called upon the airlines to eliminate fees for parents traveling with children and asked the Transportation Department to regulate the issue.
Article raised family seating issue
Schumer’s press conference followed an Associated Press article suggesting that families flying together this summer risk sitting apart on the plane unless they pay fees for advance seat selection. The article said airlines are holding back so many aisle and window seats for its most frequent flyers that non-elite flyers were left with a handful of random middle seats.
“As airlines give best seats to frequent fliers, families being split up,” a headline in the Detroit Free Press declared.
Groups call for regulation
The AP article set off an eruption of outraged press releases by special-interest groups such as the Interactive Travel Services Association (ITSA), which represents GDSs and online travel agencies; Open Allies for Airfare Transparency and the Consumer Travel Alliance. All three groups are calling for regulation to require airlines to provide full information about their ancillary services and fees to all sales channels.
“How many times have you gotten to the airport with two car seats, diaper bags, a stroller, two hungry kids and of course your luggage, and realized after checking in, that your two-year-old is sitting three rows in front of you, you’re next to the bathroom and your four-year-old is at the front of the plane?” ITSA asked. “Unfortunately, that situation is becoming increasingly familiar to families who are flying.”
But is it?
Airlines say kids are accommodated
While it’s true that more seats are offered to elite flyers when they search on airline websites, airlines say children still can be accommodated.
United said the majority of its seats – aisle, middle and window – are available to pre-assign at no additional charge.
“The only exceptions are the extra-legroom Economy Plus seats,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said. “So it's not as tough to find two or three contiguous seats at no additional charge.”
American said it has developed a new automated process that works to seat families with children 12 or under in the same reservation together prior to departure. If that isn’t possible, the carrier encourages families to make the gate agent aware on the day of travel so that agents can help to get families seated together.
Even low-cost carriers are accommodating
Spirit Airlines, a low-cost carrier that has a long list of fees, “highly recommends” that customers purchase seat assignments if they want to ensure that they have seats together. Nevertheless, “our airport customer service representatives and inflight crew do a great job in assisting families, as they do all of our customers,” spokeswoman Misty Pinson said.
Spirit has modeled itself after Ryanair, the Irish carrier that offers low base fares but charges fees for everything else. Ryanair has developed a brand that can only be described as pugnacious. But even in that environment, it’s not every man – or child – for himself.
Just don’t be late at the gate
David Huttner, an American living in London, frequently travels on Ryanair with his wife and two children but doesn’t pay for advance seat selection.
“If you are not silly enough to be the last one at the gate, then you should be able to get seats near your kids,” he said. “We have yet to miss, and we’ve taken the family on Ryanair, easyJet and Southwest. And if the kids were separated, the crew or someone with a bit of chivalry left over always seems to help people out.”
If families are inexperienced travelers, the priority seating option may reduce their anxiety “for a price,” he said. “But most do without it, and it rarely results in a serious issue.”
Help from fellow passengers
In the end, the most important factor may not be chivalry but self-preservation. No matter how darling a mother believes her 3-year-old is, fellow passengers may beg to differ.
“When families are separated, it’s never hard to convince a customer to swap if staying put means watching someone else’s little one,” an airline spokesman said.
In addition, no airline wants a child, darling or otherwise, sitting between two unrelated elite-status fliers. If all else fails, flight attendants have a few cards up their sleeves.
It’s amazing what people will do for a fistful of drink coupons.