Airlines Not Assigning Families Seats Together

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If the #1 complaint non-families often have about flying families is crying or misbehaving children, the #1 complaint by flying families is often that the airlines are sometimes less than helpful in seating families appropriately.  This is not a new issue for travelers or this blog, but it is one that bears repeating because I can’t emphasize enough how important airline seat assignments are for families with young children.

seats together on the planeThis issue resurfaced this week via a blog post from Sword and the Script when a father flying Delta Airlines had to pay $88 to get a seat assignment next to his four-year-old.  That post was then picked up by various media outlets including Yahoo here.  For what it’s worth, he could have just as easily likely been on any US airline and faced a very similar problem as this is not a Delta specific issue.

From what I have gathered he booked the tickets a few days before departure and there were no complimentary options to get two seats together even though lots of seats were available for assignment on the plane.  At check-in at the airport he explained the situation to the check-in agents who said all they could do was get them together in a premium row for $88.  They indicated the gate agent might be able to do it at no charge, but the father paid the $88 at check-in to avoid potentially having to not sit next to his four-year-old.

Some will point fingers at the father saying he should have booked farther in advance, he should have booked a different flight if he couldn’t get the seats he wanted together on that flight, he shouldn’t have waited until the day of departure to address the issue, or he should just “suck it up” and pay the $88 to sit next to his daughter without complaint because families shouldn’t be given special treatment not afforded to anyone else that wants to sit together.  In the end, no one wins if parents can’t sit next to their young children, or if airlines push the issue off until the parents are on-board having to beg other passengers to trade seats with them.  There is no doubt (in my mind) that a parent should be assigned a seat next to their young child without any additional fee, assuming a seat assignment is available.

The specifics of these seat assignment stories will vary, but there are common themes, and even I have recently had to deal with a similar seating issue with US Airways thanks to an aircraft swap that ultimately was resolved over the phone in advance of the flight without additional fees, but not without a fight and multiple phone calls.  See linked posts below for those details.

Why Families Think Airlines Suck

US Airways Has a Problem, but We Have a Solution

So, like I have written before, the logistic that traveling families should be most concerned about ahead of their trip is whether the have seat assignments together. 

How to Ensure Your Family has Seats Together on the Plane:

There is no way to 100% ensure your family has seats together, but there are ways to dramatically increase the odds of success.  Here are ten tips that I have shared before on how to ensure your family has seats together on the plane.

1.  Internalize that it is your job to make sure your family has seats together, not the airline’s job.  Whether or not it should be that way doesn’t matter.  Make it your mission to secure seats together for your family, and keep an eye on your reservation until you are safely buckled in and ready for take-off.

2.  Make sure you get seat assignments together at the time the reservation is made.  If you aren’t able to do this at the time of booking online then immediately call the airline and secure seat assignments over the phone.  If the agent you speak to won’t assign you a seat next to your young child then politely ask for a supervisor, or hang up and call back.  If there are still seats together available on the plane you will often eventually get someone to assign them to you.

3.  Check your reservation again shortly after it is made to ensure your seat assignments “stuck”.

4.  Make flight bookings for your family well in advance, if possible, as last minute reservations are more likely to have problems with seat assignments due to the plane already being full of passengers, especially in the “non-premium” rows.

5.  If you can’t get complimentary seat assignments together even after talking to the airline and explaining your “small child” situation, then be ready to open your wallet.  Often times there will be “premium economy” seats available for sale even when the complimentary economy seats are already assigned.  This is not the time be frugal in my view as the dollars it costs to secure seats together for your family are well worth skipping the stress that you may face on the day of your trip when you may be begging for strangers to take pity on you and trade seats.  Again, I don’t think you should have to pay to sit next to your kid, but sometimes it is the path of least resistance.

6.  Monitor your reservation at least monthly leading up to the trip to be sure that your seat assignments haven’t changed.  This is especially true if your reservation has a schedule change or an aircraft type substitution, as that is when seat assignments can often go askew.

7.  If you are flying Southwest (who does not offer seat assignments), seriously consider paying the extra $12.50 per person for Early Bird Check-In.  This way you are automatically given a boarding group 36 hours in advance, and it will almost always be in the A group.  Otherwise, be sure to check-in exactly 24 hours in advance to get as high of a boarding number as possible.  Families with children under 5 can board during “family boarding” between the A and B groups.

8.  The week of the trip is a great time to try and snag seats together if you don’t already have them as elite flyers get upgraded out of economy or travelers change their plans.  The 24 hour mark is another very good time to check the seat assignment map, though I don’t recommend waiting this long to secure seats together if having them is imperative for your traveling success.

9.  Plead your situation to the gate agent before boarding and flight attendant at the time of boarding, but be nice and don’t blame them for your seats not being together.  It is not their fault that your seats are separate and you are relying on their help.  If the plane is full they may not be able to get you seats together, but even getting something decent to barter with, such as two aisle seats, can really help.

10.  Beg fellow passengers in a nice and sincere way on-board.  If you have gotten this far without seats together then something really went wrong, and you are now relying on the generosity of strangers.  Hopefully you have an aisle seat or similar to barter with.  If you are asking someone to trade an aisle for your middle at the back of the plane, be ready to sweeten the pot.  Offer an on-board drink, a gift card, or even cash.  I’m serious.  Desperate times should call for bribery and many thank-yous.

Are Regulations Needed:

I’m not one who jumps to thinking we need more regulation in our lives, but truthfully there should probably be something in place from the FAA stating that children (at least) under the age of 5 must be seated next to a caregiver for emergency purposes.  In reality I would like to think my 5, 6, or 7 year old would also be seated next to me, but since you can fly as an unaccompanied minor starting at age 5 on most US airlines, it is probably the logical cut-off age if there is an age-based regulation at some point (though the unaccompanied minor age is actually not a FAA regulation).  There are age based regulations for the emergency exit row (age 15), so it wouldn’t be the first time age has made its way into an FAA passenger seating regulation.

Apart from any official government mandated regulations, airlines really should take the opportunity to firm up their policies on this issue.  I can’t imagine they like getting drug into the media spotlight over families seating issues time and time again.  Since there are so few rows on many planes that are available for courtesy assignment these days, and in the US we are seeing more carriers operate that charge for seats together in any row, this is an area that probably needs some attention and clarification in a way that it didn’t when planes were less full and economy seats were all treated the same.  I’m all for capitalism and the airline’s right to make some extra cash by charging for premium economy rows, but not at the expense of splitting a caregiver from a young child.

 

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Comments

  1. You nailed it. You are 100% right. Airlines are just asking for regulation given how stupid this policy is. No one wants to be seated next to someone’s child without a parent there. Making money is important but annoying your customers is bad.

    Imagine the risk they are taking with an emergency landing gone wrong where children are separated from parents. Talk about a massive lawsuit.

  2. You know what I’d do? I’d tell the airline “ok, your crew is going to have a BLAST when my child starts screaming”. I’m probably messed up enough to actually follow through with that threat too. Of course, you can always board last, sit your child in his/her seat and then tell the person next to him/her just how accommodating the airline was to split you guys up, and, would it be possible to switch seats? Most sane people wouldn’t want to get stuck next to a child that isn’t theirs. And like i previously said…I’m probably sadistic enough to follow through and watch a meltdown happen mid flight.

    • The net of it is…if NOBODY wants to be accommodating, then why bother being accommodating (paying surcharges) back?

    • I would do the same thing. In fact I have. We were returning from Romania with a pretty bad off daughter. On our last leg of the trip, after being bitten, kicked and pinched by this tiny 4 yr old for 16 hours, I told the flight attendent to put her anywhere. I didn’t want to spend another minute with crazy kid. I said it out loud and everyone stood up and started moving around so we could all sit together. Can you imagine 2 businessmen siting on either side of a 3 yr old wanting their mommy, nose dripping and smelling poopy? I’ve traveled a lot and have 6 kids.

    • Great attitude, instead of being proactive and availing yourself of an option for seats together, albeit at a cost, make threats that a disturbance will occur if you aren’t given special treatment. Excellent way to get denied boarding.

  3. We flew Delta at Christmas and they were fantastic about getting my husband and two boys together… but only once we actually got on the plane. I’m sure they realized random passenger X would have LOVED sitting next to my 5 year old who is terrified of airplanes. I must also say, the fellow passengers were extremely helpful and kind to us. A flight attendant loaded my kids up with cookies and told them he was also afraid of flying. (ha!) It is scary, however, to think that they can’t figure this sort of thing out prior to boarding. Regulations to assist those under 5 or with special needs is a logical solution. If someone requires caregiver assistance, particularly in an emergency situation, they should be given seat assignments together.

  4. Also, 100% agree. I paid $39 per person for Economy Comfort for myself and my 5 year old last year about 2 months in advance of the flight (DL). The plane was sold out of 2 seats together in regular economy. I had confirmed seats in 12AB. A few weeks later, I double checked and we’d been moved to two new seats in EC but not together. And ALL seats were now occupied. I can’t recall if it was an aircraft change or not, but I was really peeved. My son and I have different last names and our tickets were not booked on the same PNR for various reasons. I had called in to “link” them but clearly that wasn’t helpful. Calling in, I was told that there was nothing they could do and I’d have to deal with it at the airport. In the end, a nice woman traded seats with me so that I could sit with my son. My point here is that ultimately even if you pay for a specific “class” of seats, you are not necessarily paying for seats together. I’d be MORE than happy to pay a fee for a “sit together” guarantee, even in regular economy.

  5. While I agree that it’s absurd that airlines don’t, as a matter of course, seat children with their parents (and that it’s wholly undesirable for anyone for a child to be seated apart from a parent), I wonder how much this is a problem in practice? After boarding the plane, a parent and a child who are separated will have one better seat (even if only nominally) and one worse one. Put the child in the worse seat, then offer someone next to the child opportunity to move up. It’s hard to imagine anyone would not help you out in that situation (and, at the same time, get a more desirable seat).

    And if they didn’t? I guess I’d probably seat my child in their own seat and, before going to mine, just say to them “Try not to cry too much on this flight and if you get sick again try to get more of it in the bag, okay?”

  6. We were very lucky, and Delta did their best to accommodate us (3 seats + 1 infant)
    I booked the flight 1 year out, but 3 schedule changes later it’s all messed up

    MSP-SEA
    We had 3 middle-seats in Y+ (ARGH). At gate they gave us 2 together. One gentleman refused to switch aisle with my middle (I don’t blame him) but the other one (Window) offered himself to swap with me. I was forever grateful

    SEA-DTW. Almost same thing but we traded our Y+ middle seat for a Y seat and the Chinese woman was a bit unhappy and she did it anyway. I thank her regardless

    Gladly we didn’t have such big issues for our long-haul SEA-ICN-SEA, that would’ve been horrible
    Sometimes it all comes down to luck really

  7. Delta is all about the $$$$. Thy couldn’t care less about this family and I am pretty sure that if he left the kid alone and the kid cried the crew would probably say they were “not comfortable with the situation” and call security to deplane the father and son. I cannot wait for the day that ME and Asian airlines will find a way to fly domestic in the US. That would bring the US airlines down to reality and reinsert the word “customer service” in this country. I am not sure if there is any regulation but as someone said here I see a safety issue in having a 6 years old sitting separate from his family. In case of an emergency, no way in hell I would leave the aircraft without my son.

  8. A couple of things:

    1) Even if there are no seats available together at time of booking, some seats are always reserved for airport staff and on line check in use.
    2) Something like 30% of seats on most planes are now “premium” economy and if you don’t selected an assignment on a full flight, they’ll be assigned to you for free at check in. Those are great to trade up with for folks in economy minus

    I get it that families want to sit together. However, I’m 6 feet tall with long legs and broad shoulders so no I’m not trading for a middle seat if I have an aisle or window and no I’m not trading my premium economy seat for a regular economy. As a parent, your job is to ensure you don’t have four or five middle seats and need folks to trade their aisle or window seats for middle seats.

    • I think the point was that there really isn’t anything one can do to “ensure” seat assignments. One can try (per my earlier comment): I booked 2 months out and saw only 2 middle seats available in economy. I paid the upgrade to Economy Comfort for 2 seats together. Was later reassigned (without my knowledge) to 2 middle seats in EC. How do you suggest we ensure seats together if the above doesn’t work?

  9. What I find ironic is that we flew SFO-HNL in Feb and our two boys (4.5 and 6) wanted to sit together so they could share Legos, so DH and I sat in front of them (side seats on a 777 in E+). The FA then came by and told us we needed to have 1 adult with each kid for safety reasons.

    I totally get that (though we let them sit together after we reached cruising altitude) so then how can airlines justify splitting up families and assuming that some random adult will take care of a kid in case of an emergency?

    We’re flying SWA in July and it will be the last time we’re eligible for family boarding. I refuse to pay the 12.50 for Early Bird as it is actually possible (albeit unlikely) that every passenger could buy EB – so you would end up in B or C even after forking out more money.

    • I never pay for early bird for my family of 5, but I do check in right at the 24 hr mark and have had decent success. When we do board, we usually just walk straight to the back and voila a row to ourselves. On 10 flights last fall w/ at least 2 kids (sometimes 3), they never sat without me.

  10. I think that your idea that if they’re not old enough to fly as unaccompanied minors, they should be seated next to an accompanying passenger is logical. But then what if indeed there are no such seats available? What if there remain no two seats together on the flight when you attempt to make a purchase? Should the airline be allowed to sell them to you, or should you be denied the opportunity to purchase what’s available and then try to make a trade?

    • Interesting thought. I can argue either way, but I’m slightly inclined to say they should sell them to you and move people around. I cringe a little just writing that, but my logic is that it seems airlines move people around for random reasons all the time. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been moved to a seat different than the one I chose, and I’ve never been offered a reason why. This would be just one more mysterious reason.

      • And the reality is they already block seats. This could just be an official reason to release them.

        • My family of 4 are booked on the same flights to a vacation trip to Hawaii in less than 2 weeks. I am Gold elite with Delta and my wife and 2 kids have no status. I booked 3 award tickets in one reservation for them using my miles and I purchased my ticket on a separate reservation so I can earn miles to keep my status next year. Both reservations are linked in the Delta systems. Today I went to both reservations to check seats (we are all together but I wanted to check if there were better options) and on their reservation the entire plane is booked. There are zero seats for you to chose. When I open my reservation and check the same flight there are several open seats for me to chose. Thus, Delta clearly does not show all seats available for non elite and I am pretty sure that Diamond members have even more seats available than what shows in my reservation.

  11. US Airways split up my family over Thanksgiving on a red eye from LAX to Philly AFTER we already checked in at the ticket counter. As we handed our boarding tickets to the gate agent my ticket started beeping furiously and they had split us all up (my husband, my son (age 4), and me). Our tickets that printed out at the ticket counter had the seats we had originally booked. It turns out that when someone else checked in on American after us they let her pay for my son’s seat (in the window) and then the computer somehow split us all up. Literally this happened in the course of an hour while we were at the airport waiting to board. There’s no way to make sure this doesn’t happen. After multiple attempts to try and speak with some at US Air (now American) we finally got a response that specifically stated that no seat assignments are guaranteed and it is at their will that they assign seats (even if you pay for them). AWESOME. Thanks to the kindness of strangers on board (not the lady who took my son’s seat – she was holding firm and certainly not the awful gate agents that treated us like criminals during this whole episode) I got to sit with my son and my husband ended up in an aisle in the row behind us.

  12. I fly solo for work often and only once a year with family. I book ASAP to get 4 seats together. Once for a family funeral I had to travel alone with a 3 yo. The gate agents remedied it for me.

  13. So, the FAA petition is rather hard to do, their site is a mess. I looked at the petitions.whitehouse.gov site and figured “why not?”

    I’m currently going with this title “Require the FAA to mandate that airlines seat accompanied minors next to at least one member of their party.” and this description:

    “Airlines frequently move seats around resulting in families who had assigned seats together becoming separated. Children who are too young to fly as unaccompanied minors (5yo) can still be made to sit separately from their guardians. This issue has been frequently been reported in the mainstream press.

    This situation is not only potentially traumatic for the child and family, it is a safety hazard in the event of an emergency. Parents are likely to fight their way to their child, impeding others from evacuating. Also it is not reasonable to assume that a stranger is willing to take responsibility for a child in such an event.

    This petition asks that the FAA require that any accompanied minor is seated next to at least one member of their party.”

    Any edits/comments to make before I publish and it can no longer be edited? There’s an 800 character limit and the description currently uses 760.

    • Why is it that “families” feel entitled over other flying customers. I would have no problem with a petition for a rule “that the FAA require that any accompanied minor is seated next to at least one member of their party” ,IF, the issue of screaming babies is also addressed! I’d gladly support your accompanied minor petition if you supported another one restricting the minimum age to fly at 5 years of age. Yeah right, families will overwhelming support that position. Ah, let the stones and names fly now —————

      • I don’t feel entitled, but there’s something wrong when you take every measure possible to ensure you are seated next to your child (booking early, getting assigned seats, checking the seats every few weeks) and then the airline separates you at the last minute with no recourse.

        Perhaps the petition should be amended to account for those who did no advanced planning and never had seats together in the first place, but really, the safety issues I stated would still apply in that case.

        Do you really want to end up sitting next to a 3 year old whose freaking out because their parents were separated from them?

        • While I agree 100% it is on parents to ensure they are assigned seats together, ultimately it is unacceptable whatever the circumstances for children under around 5 to be seated away from at least one caregiver on the plane. At the very least, it is a safety issue because who is going to ensure that kid gets out safely, stays buckled in safely, etc. I don’t think there should be any amendment about planning. Plain and simple, a child under about 5 should not be permitted to sit away from a caregiver, end of story.

    • Awesome! Why don’t you start a flyer talk thread w/ the same title and provide a link to your petition. I’ll sign it!!!

      • That’s I good idea. I’ll do that after I publish. I’ve already found 3 typos, so clearly it needs more editing. I know it could use a little more polishing as some of the phrasing is a little awkward. Suggestions/Refinements are welcome!

    • I think the main thing is to state that the issue is when the minor is too young to fly as an unaccompanied minor. I would support that. I have seen rants on other blog where parents demand the right to sit next to kids well above that age, even teenagers. That is not necessary. If they can fly as an unaccompanied minor, they can fly on the same plane separate from their party.

      • Actually, upon further reflection, I’m not so sure. While I agree that it’s unacceptable for parents to throw a fit about sitting next to their 16 year old, my concern is for the younger ones. My understanding is that when children fly as unaccompanied minors, the parents pay an extra fee and the flight attendants explicitly understand that the child is under their care. Should an emergency happen in the scenario where a parent is separated from their child, the flight attendant would have no idea that there’s a child who needs help, and in fact the attendant might impede the parent from getting to the child, potentially leaving the child imperiled.

        • YES! Thank you for bringing up this fact. I think that ALL minors should be allowed to sit next to a parent, or at least until they are about 12 or 13 years old and can deal with an emergency situation. There is an extra charge for unaccompanied minors because they are specifically cared for by the airline staff during the flight. If there is an emergency, the staff will tend to them. This is NOT the case for a child who happens to be sitting alone due to a seating mix-up.

          If there ever was an emergency, my 6 year old child would not know what to do, or how to put on an oxygen mask. He still has pee accidents and thinks that tooth fairy is real! Definitely NOT ready to deal with an emergency situation on his own.

    • So in essence, you want to do away with the ability of minor children to fly unaccompanied. You cant have it both ways.

  14. I know it an unpopular opinion — but unless you are willing to pay for the assigned seats together, dont be upset if you dont get seated together. Dont expect also that others didnt have a reason for selecting their seats. I sit in the aisle seat across from my spouse (we both prefer aisle seats). I would decline to exchange seats in your situation as I selected my seat with the particular goal of sitting across from my spouse — why should I give that up and have to sit somewhere else on the plane so that you can last minute be seated next to your relative. I do understand the age factor, but that is just more reason for you to pay for the assigned seats.

    • todd – I think you’re missing the point. Even if you pay the fee to have seats together and go through the effort of monitoring it to make sure you don’t get switched through the process – it can still happen. I’m an executive platinum flyer on American so I know the ins and outs of the system and it still happened to me and we heard from many other frequent fliers around us that it has happened to them in the past as well. Don’t assume that the family asking you to make the switch is doing so because they were too cheap or lazy to make the proper arrangements.

  15. I’d have called their bluff: “You won’t seat us together? Fine, you can take care of her. Here’s her stuff!”

  16. My view is that the airlines should move people around in advance. I’ve now had 3 trips in the last couple years with my twins (3-5 years old during the trips) where despite booking at least 6 months in advance, they have changed planes and split us up. It’s inconceivable to me their computer systems are incapable of seeing ages on a reservation and avoid putting 4 year olds alone. While I don’t like telling an airline to involuntarily move someone, they did it to me and if they’re going to do it to someone it shouldn’t be someone with a toddler in the reservation. While it’s always worked out to get us together, the gate agents were not very helpful and seemed perfectly happy to let the 4 year old sit alone (or leave us to beg passengers) if something didn’t open up by itself. They definitely didn’t seem as if they’d do anything to proactively solve the problem. Definitely should be a regulation at least that if a party with a child has booked seats together, you may not split them up involuntarily due to schedule or aircraft change.

  17. A major problem is that many families decide to save a few dollars by not paying the extra fee that is required for an aisle or window seat. Instead, they want to browbeat others into giving up their seats, sometimes asking people to move from an aisle to a middle.

    What we need is some sort of compensation plan, so that people who book seats together but are then split up get a partial refund of their ticket or some other compensation. They can then use this money to pay someone to take an undesirable seat.

    • I honestly don’t think that’s a “major problem.” Perhaps I have a little too much faith in humanity, but I think most people do whatever they can, including paying extra, to ensure they are seated next to their young child without having to resort to pleading with strangers. Just sampling from the other comments on this thread show many examples of that.

      Personally, I have a flight coming up that I booked a year in advance. There’s already been several plane changes and seat reassignments. Every few weeks I log in to check that our seats are still together. I do all this to ensure my child isn’t alone, but it can still be taken from me at any moment, even after check-in! This isn’t right.

  18. I feel a little sick (I am NOT a person to put myself out there), but I did it, I published a White House petition about this topic. Please consider giving it your support and passing it along. Thank you.

  19. Alas, I guess I’m not allowed to post URLs here, and FlyerTalk isn’t letting me post a link to the petition either. Really surprised as it seems very relevant to their audience, but I guess that’s what I get for always being a lurker. Anyone have any ideas or can help?

    • Jennifer, I approved the comment and link here. It just isn’t an automatic process when there is an outside URL in the comment. I also shared the link on Facebook and Twitter.

      • Thank you! I hope I haven’t ruffled any feathers. I’m usually just a lurker, so I’m not familiar with how URLs are treated on blogs. I guess the idea of my child alone on a place is frightening enough to make me step WAY out of my comfort zone.

  20. If you propose legislation that states families need be seated together (or that a minor child should be seated with an adult family member )- please recognize that in essence such legislation (if approved) would enable airlines to state that children cannot fly unaccompanied. Any child sold a ticket would require an accompanying sale of a ticket to an adult. You cannot have it both ways.
    The solution is to purchase assigned seats. As others have indicated that the airlines sometimes don’t honor these assigned tickets — I would think the better proposal of legislation would be to state that families traveling together that PURCHASE assigned seats need to have such purchase honored.

  21. US Airways just did it to me, they only have middle seats available to Hawaii and all other seats are a premium. Can you imagine all the window and aisle seats are taken and no one in-between? It is just another way to create revenue and it is unethical and extortion. The airlines believe it is okay for an 8 year old to sit between strangers on a red-eye across the ocean?
    They are forcing us to pay an additional 600.00 to sit together. Southwest 12.50 early bird sounds like a bargain.

    • I hope you sign and promote the petition. At this point, I’m losing hope as not much is happening with it, but you never know.

  22. This is insane! I didn’t read through all the comments so this may have been addressed-if I’m flying alone can I tell someone at the airlines that I am willing to trade seats to keep families together? I’ve done it before but only when I noticed that couples or parents weren’t sitting together and I offered.

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