When is it Okay for Parents to Sit in First Class While the Kids are in Economy?

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I remember as a kid watching the movie Home Alone and seeing the parents all relax in first class on their American Airlines flight from Chicago to Paris (before they realized Kevin was missing), while the kids all hung together in economy. That looked like the epitome of how ‘rich people’ traveled to me when I first saw it as a nine year old. While of course the premise of the movie was that Kevin was somehow left at home without anyone noticing until they were flying over the ocean, otherwise I don’t remember anyone being particularly critical at the time of the children ages 8-ish to in their 20’s sitting in economy while the parents were on the same flight in first class.

 

I know the ‘unwritten rules’ of parenting have changed in many ways since 1990, and perhaps parents sitting in first while the children sit in economy is one of those things that was more or less okay a generation ago, but is no longer as copacetic.

Parents in First Class While the Children are in Economy

I read an interesting post and the many impassioned comments on this very topic on One Mile at a Time yesterday, and I found myself having an interesting and almost surprising opinion given that I am “Mommy” Points.

To give a little background on the situation that brought this conversation to light, Ben from One Mile at a Time was recently on an Alaska Airlines flight where the parents sat together in first class and “knocked back a handful of drinks each” while their 8 – 10 year old daughter sat alone in economy. He became aware of this seating situation because as the flight attendant took meal orders they told the flight attendant that their daughter was in Seat X, and asked that if she could have any extra meals.

Then towards the end of the flight the daughter came up briefly to first class and Ben saw that she was likely in the 8-10 year old range. His take was that this seating arrangement was completely unfair to both the daughter and to her seatmates in economy who he worries may have to at least watch after her somewhat during the flight.

Now, I am normally Team Sit With Your Children, but I wasn’t nearly as shocked or appalled by this arrangement as Ben and some other commenters were…though the parents should not have asked for free food to be sent back to economy. Honestly, depending on some very important variables, I think the seating arrangement itself might be fine. It was certainly fine circa the 1990 Home Alone era. At the very least, I don’t want to be so quick to judge the situation.

First, let’s acknowledge that there are some dud parents who by some miracle just manage to keep their children fed and alive. Then there are the rest of us who aren’t perfect, but generally do a pretty good job at meeting our kids needs and assessing their capabilities in a given situation. I like to think that most parents know when there kiddo is ready to sit by themselves on an airplane. Generally speaking, if a parent thinks they need to be seated right next to their child, then they probably do. If they think their child can safely sit a few rows away, then they probably can.

My own oldest daughter flew by herself at 6.5 years old, and she was indeed ready for that responsibility at that age. Of course she was booked as an official unaccompanied minor, but in practice she was 95% on her own for that flight and by all reports she did great.

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To be 100% honest, I briefly contemplated booking her in economy while I sat in first with my youngest daughter on a short flight later this year. By the time that flight rolls around, she will be a second grader who is almost 8 years old, and I considered this because there weren’t enough award seats for all three of us in either cabin. I think she could handle it for the short flight from Dallas to Kansas, but the added dynamic of her younger sister sitting with mom while she wasn’t is the variable that could be problematic depending on her mood that day, so I passed on that seating arrangement this time around.

However, since my oldest daughter has 100+ flights under her belt, knows how to work her iPad, knows the flight procedures, know how to use the lav, and could certainly come alert me if she had an unusual need, outside of the sister rivalry potential, I very well would have pulled the trigger on this arrangement. When she is 9 or 10 years old the likelihood I would be okay with her sitting a few rows back in economy on a relatively short daytime flight while I sit in first will only increase. That doesn’t mean I would seek out that seating arrangement, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out if the situation presented itself in a logical way. I think that gradually easing kids into more autonomy and responsibility is vastly preferable to coddling them until they turn 16, 17, or 18 and then expecting them to miraculously be somewhat self-sufficient overnight.

Sitting with mom...for now

Sitting with mom…for now

When is Okay for Parents to Sit in First Class While the Children are in Economy

Along those lines, the question to me isn’t really is it okay for parents to sit in first while the kids sit in economy, it is at what point is it okay. Even in 2017, it has to be okay at some point for the children to “fend for themselves” in economy while the parents sit on the same flight towards the front of the plane. Of course it also isn’t okay until a certain point, so when is that dividing line?

I think there are four things to consider when deciding if it is okay to book your children in economy while you sit in first class…

  1. Will your child be okay with the normal procedures in economy without you within eye shot? This means do they know routine airline procedures, and can they meet their own needs for entertainment, food, using the lav, etc. without asking for assistance from others around them?
  2. Will they be okay knowing you are close, but not actually sitting with them? More than just knowing how to go through the motions of a flight on their own, will they emotionally be okay with knowing you are on the flight but not sitting with them? This may sound silly, but it sort of falls under how children can act one way when mom and dad are around, but act another when they know that mom and dad aren’t there to “save them”.
  3. How long is the flight and at what time of day? While a child may be okay with sitting a few rows away on a two hour flight in the afternoon, a ten hour flight through the night may be another issue entirely.
  4. Can they come to you if needed? Parents in seats 4A and 4B with the child in seat 8C on a 737 is an entirely different scenario than parents on the upper deck of a 747 with the child on the bottom deck in seat 39B. It is easy enough to come a few rows up and go around a curtain to get the parents in first class if needed on a standard domestic aircraft, but it can be trickier on some larger airplanes.

For some mature and experienced traveling kids, I think somewhere between 8 – 10 years old may actually be the right age to potentially sit a few rows away in economy while the parents are in first class on some flights. Certainly by the time the kid is in the 10 – 12 year old range this could be a potential consideration, especially for those flights during the day that aren’t too terribly long.

At some point they are old enough to sit a little further away

At some point they are old enough to sit a little further away

As always, I could be completely off-base with my assessment of when it is okay for children to sit in economy while the parents are in first class, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Comments

  1. I would think that 9-10 is too young. I would wait until they are a teenager, at which point they probably don’t want to sit with you anyway. Maybe 12 if they’re a young 7th grader. But I would feel the delineation is between elementary and middle school. Guess that might be 6th grade in some areas…

  2. I think a lot depends on age and maturity. Some 8 year olds would be fine while some 14 year olds wouldn’t. I might do ut it if i was in the last row of First and the kids were in the first row or two of econ.

    One thing I worry about though is if there is an emergency. That 767 that caught fire at O’Hare a few months ago as an example. If I’m in row 3 and my kids are in row 35 and we have 90 seconds to get off the plane, I’m not going out the first exit i see and then hope my kids do the same. I’m swimming into the flow of people trying to get to my kids. I know this is a 1 in 1,000,000….but it does happen.

    • Right, except that it’s nearly impossible in the normal flow of boarding an airplane and I can’t imagine it would work in an emergency. Then, this person would possibly come up to someone like me who is not going to have my kids politely stand by while the [fill in the blank] reconsiders their parenting decisions. 🙂

      Not to mention, that action would almost certainly be a violation of federal law (disobeying the order to evacuate) and hopefully would be prosecuted avidly. Not that I’d hesitate to break any number of laws to protect my child, but since I’ll be sitting next to them, no worries!

  3. The problem can be other passengers. When I let my kids (10, 13) sit alone, a much larger, unfriendly passenger intimidated them into giving up the aisle seats I’d gotten for them, then they were too scared to ask her to stand up to go to the bathroom. They feel they have to comply with adults, and didn’t know what to do with a disagreeable one. Only when I checked on them after a couple of hours did I realize what was going on, and I was certainly not too intimidated to inquire why she ended up sitting in my kids’ seat, then request she get up so my kids could get a potty break.

    After that incident I told my kids they aren’t sitting alone until they are old enough to deal with adults, even unpleasant ones, on equal footing. Just a cautionary tale.

  4. I like giving my kids “safe” opportunities to be independent. But, I have also read a few recent stories about sexual assault on planes and I wouldn’t want them to be at risk because they appear to be alone.

    • I hear ya. I think about that too. I think the question is though when it is okay to not sit next to them because at some point we won’t be right there.

    • As bad as it sounds, I thought the exact same thing! For this reason, I’d wait for them to be in the older teenage range.

  5. Summer,

    I like your reasoning and think that it sounds a lot like making that first decision to leaving them at home alone for up to half an hour or so while you run out for milk, versus leaving them alone for an entire afternoon or evening.

    As long as your kids know that kicking the seat ahead is not cool, for whatever reason they do it, I’d have no problem if I saw this happen!

  6. Maybe I’m different but I like my kid enough that I WANT to sit with her. I mean I understand the reasons you have and they are logical. And I understand that when award seats fall in a certain way that it might be the only way to make something work BUT I would feel better if she had a sibling(mine doesn’t) and for the most part, all our flights are for leisure. So if the award seats didn’t work out where we could sit together then maybe I pick a different flight or day so we could. I guess I just feel like the parents don’t like the kid all that much when I see that happen.

    • I love flying with my littles too, but sometimes pragmatic issues come into play. I also think if you are heading off on a week-long family vacation together then sitting apart for a few hours doesn’t necessarily mean that parents don’t like being with their kids. At least I know it wouldn’t mean that for me if/when this ever happens.

      • It’s relative (to some degree) but to me pragmatic is “I’ll just have to find a different flight” or even “I guess we’ll go to XYZ since there aren’t any suitable flights to ABC.”

        I agree with your reasoning, but I think it applies at age 13/14/15 when a *child* is looking at getting a DL soon, and perhaps going away to college in a few years. At this age we’re teaching independence and decision making with money, and that sort of thing. We talk about tornado and fire safety, strangers, etc. and we’re on plan for a thriving mature adult in 10 or 12 years.

        • I don’t think there is anything wrong in deciding the right age to potentially sit apart in your family is 13, or 14, or 15. I don’t know if/when the right time will be for us, but sitting a few rows apart from first to economy on a short 1-2 hour flight at this point doesn’t feel like something that to necessarily wait until 13 – 15 years old. Interesting discussion though!

  7. Americans must have the weakest self esteem and displine in that they tell their kids they can be anything they want & can achieve anything in life if they work for it, but also they needed support, counseling and medication whenever they see or hear or feel something bad. Kids are bought up thinking they are wonderful, in reality they need to know life is not easy, needs hard work , always has limit. The earlier they see this the better for them.

  8. You can extend this discussion to economy airlines when families don’ t choose to buy preassigned seats. If the airlines have an issue, they should force families with, eg kids under a certain age to buy assigned seats. Something like AA not allowing parents to seat in exit rows with kids <15. I think it is the responsibility of the airlines to set the age guidelines.

    My 8&9yr olds are season travelers and capable, but I still think they should not be kept unsupervised and left to the discretion of other travelers or the flight attendants- it is not the other passengers' responsibilty and they should not be volunteered. If we fly business, we all fly business, one child/parent in business and one child/parent in economy, or one parent in business and the other to watch the 2 kids in economy.

    The only time my kids sat alone was when we had to fly standby and there were no seats together. Everyone was very nice but I did not feel comfortable imposing and, yes, to some degree, you would be imposing.

    Something I realize early is that NOT EVERYONE LIKES CHILDREN or at least other people's children. I love kids but really do not want to look at picture of other people's children, let alone be volunteered to supervise someone else's child. I also don't want my kids sitting alone with such people.

  9. I won’t agree or disagree with anyone’s opinion here since each parent raises their kids in a different way. Also, I will add a similar comment to what I wrote on Ben’s blog and add a bit more context to my answer. First, what called my attention on his post was that the parents were 2 dads. Let me start by saying I have nothing against gay couples having adopted children and I find it is a blessing for kids to be able to have someone that loves them. However, it all starts a bit weird when two guys are sitting in first class and have their 8-10 year adopted old daughter sitting back in coach. My opinion: it looks weird. Also, ask the FA to send an extra meal to the kid because she might be hungry? What kind of parents are them that could not at least walk to their daughter mid flight to check on her and see if she needed anything. Second, every family raises their kids differently. In my house it is me, my wife and two boys ages 11 and 8. I travel a lot for business and get upgrade quite often. When traveling with my wife and kids the rule is: if I am the only one upgraded, either my wife takes the first class sit and I sit with the kids in Economy or I politely decline the upgrade and seat in Economy with my family. Again, that is how my family raised me and that is how I raise my kids. Third, many people talk about maturity, being able to go to the bathroom, ask for water and pretzels, watch a movie on a iPad. How about in the case of an emergency? Oxygen masks go down. Plane needs to make emergency land. Would I be comfortable sitting in first class knowing my kid is alone on the back of the plane? How would my boys react in case of an emergency? Would a strange sitting next to them help them with oxygen masks? At this point I doubt I could go back and check how they are. Thus, if my kids are not ready to drive and vote I think it is wise to have them close to me and my wife during a trip. Also, if my kid is traveling alone but as an unaccompanied minor that is a completely different case since I am “assuming” the airline is taking good care of him which is already proven not to be the case in many articles you read about airlines messing up with those cases.

      • Two guys drinking together in first class while their 8 year old adopted daughther sits on the back of the plane alone? Oh, and please FA go check on her since she might be hungry!!! Since these are two guys and they adopted a girl it adds more responsibility on them to make sure she is OK. I would have the same comment if this was a single dad leaving his daughter on the back. Thus, there is nothing about them being gay but a man leaving a girl alone in the back.

  10. Didn’t the “Home Alone” movie have a much older sibling acting as baby sitter for a bunch of kids while the parents were up front and not a solo kid as in this case?

    I’m of the opinion that kids should be with at least one parent/guardian always. In an emergency I do NOT want to rely on someone else to make sure that oxygen mask gets on, keep them calm, leave items on board AND get out of the plane.

    If a parent can’t help ensure that they can assist putting on an oxygen mask in case of emergency because they are several rows away BY CHOICE, that smells of irresponsibility to me.

    @TM The no kids under 15 in emergency rows is not just for AA, it’s all US airlines per FAA, but minimum ages may differ on other international airlines (BA is 12+)

    • My point is that the parent can’t sit in the exit row if traveling with kids < 15. I imagine so they help others rather than just their kids. So, neither my husband or I can sit in exit row if my kids are a row away.

  11. I’d also like to 2nd everyone’s comments regarding an emergency. I can’t imagine how terrified I would be (let alone a kid) in that situation if you weren’t 100% certain they could handle the emergency on their own. That’s why I think middle school is a good age…because by then they’ve been through enough emergency drills to finally get it and not go into a sheer panic that totally shuts them down when a real emergency actually occurs.

    • I agree you need to consider emergencies, but also keeping that in perspective. My kid also rides with other parents in cars, goes to school, and more without me right next to her. So, consider emergencies, but I have a hard time exclusively parenting to the worst case scenario.

      • Those are situations where another adult (friend, teacher, bus driver, etc.) has accepted responsibility for your child. Putting them on a plane next to a random adult who now really has no choice but to bear some responsibility for them should an emergency arise is an *entirely* different thing.

        • We can use a different scenario such as when they are just playing in the neighborhood with their friends and not directly under the supervision of an adult. I think we agree that children shouldn’t be seated alone on a flight until they are ready to be in charge of themselves and not rely on their neighbor. I’m really more curious as to a discussion around when that may happen and good cues that your kiddo is ready.

  12. When is it okay for me to sit in Biz while my gf sits in Economy on a long haul?
    I’ve had this issue several times with ex-gfs. Sometimes they complain, sometimes they don’t.
    But I’m paying for the trip and I’m taller, so I think it makes sense

  13. I am with those that would not do this with a 8-10 year old. Our youngest is 11 and also a pretty seasoned traveler, however, I would be very concerned about her in an emergency situation if she was by herself. I think that it is reasonable to follow the airlines guidelines in terms of who can travel on their own without being an UM. While an UM is pretty much on their own during a flight, there is a flight attendant who is supposed to look out for them in the case of an emergency. We first flew in a separate cabin from our children when our oldest was 15 (with her 12, 11, and 9 year old sisters), however, that was one row apart and only because Air Canada messed up our seat assignments. When she was 16, we flew in CX first while they were in business, so a little more separation, but not much. Now, we would be fine with them in another cabin with them being 11-17 years old, as long as at least one of the older two was on the trip.

  14. Recently the flight attendant approached us about the oxygen masks – i.e. put yours on before your kid’s. My school age daughter looked at her and said word for word that section of the entire safety speech given on Southwest Airlines. Some kids can sit alone just fine. Some adults cannot. If I got to choose between seatmates I would always pick a kid of any age.

    My husband once asked about the food on United because he will not touch airplane food. I was in the back with my kid and he basically said, “I’m not going to eat this can I take this back to them.” The flight attendant suggested he just switch with me during meal time. I enjoyed that suggestion very much and may have taken my time switching back to economy.

  15. Funny, a few days ago I was googling this very topic because I had five award tickets on hold – three in business and two in first. They didn’t have five in business. Normally I wouldn’t consider business but it was along haul to Asia and I was primarily focused on the kids getting the best sleep possible. My kids are 7, 9 and 12. The agent said some airlines treat them as unaccompanied minors if parents are in a separate cabin but in this instance because one of them was 12 they wouldn’t be. I had a lot of mental back and forth about the arrangement. I figured FAs would take better care of them in business than economy so I felt better than if they were in Econ, but I still didn’t love it. I wasn’t crazy though about swapping one of them up to first with a parent for several reasons. In the end we ended up not booking the trip so moot point. I would say if they were three years older I would have thought it was a no-brainer but that’s just me. And I considered it when it was all three of them but probably would have rejected it outright if it were just one of them sitting separately, even the 12 yr old.

  16. I think my oldest 4 children (14, 12, 11 and 8) could take care of themselves just fine sitting in a different class. Since I usually travel with 4-7 of us, someone is always sitting alone and the only time they need me is when their iPad battery dies. However, the thought of an emergency is what would keep me from separating myself too far from them. I would want to be close enough to assist my children if something should happen. I don’t trust strangers to assume responsibility for my kids.

  17. My dad was an Ex Plat on AA when I was a kid and would always get upgraded. One time only one ticket got upgraded and he let me sit in first class alone. It was a short flight from Miami to DC. I was prob like 10 years old.

  18. I think a common sense approach as to an appropriate age to separate cabins is if you would leave your child home alone. If you would leave your child home alone for a short period of time, you trust they know what to do in the event a stranger comes over or the house catches on fire. The same age should apply to a common carrier where your child is out of sight.

    I would not leave an 8 or 10 year old home alone. 12… probably, but like all things in life, it depends.

    • Seems reasonable, but also begs a whole other interesting conversation about what age can kids be left home alone. Very few states have laws on that, but those that do the minimum age varies from 8 – 14 I believe. In Texas, the only similar age related law is you have to be 7 to be left in a car without someone 14 or older. I know we aren’t talking about laws, but still interesting. I don’t know what age I will leave my oldest daughter home while I run to the store, but I have to believe it will happen in the coming years.

      • If you want to go there and also play the emergency on the plane: in my town, parents left 4 kids (12 and under) at home to go to a prayer group. There was a fire and 3 of the kids died.

        Let’s call a spade a spade shall we, with few exceptions, you do not HAVE TO sit in business/ 1st and leave your kids unsupervised. There are always alternatives, including staying home.

        • I’m not trying to go anywhere, just explore this topic a bit in a logical manner. That is a terrible tragedy. Of course there are pretty much always alternatives to sitting in first with the kids in economy, but I just don’t think it has to mean it is always the worst idea or that there doesn’t come a time or circumstance as they grow up where it might be okay.

  19. I saw the post on OMAAT and read through most of the comments. I didn’t see any mention of how long the flight was. Not that this would either make it right or wrong, just curious. I’m actually not sure how I feel about this. At first I thought it was pretty awful, but I do agree that at some point, it would be fine for a child to sit by themselves. I guess in this situation, I might split up with my husband so one of us was with my daughter….but at some point I would be fine with her in economy alone – as long as she was ok with it (I just don’t know what that point is)

    • I was also curious about flight distance, as I do think it matters to a degree. When some of us have gotten upgraded we have always one adult with one child and the other adult goes to economy. However, my daughter has always been too young to even consider doing anything else. In a few years I don’t know what my answer would be, but agree that at some point it has to be okay to split up for a few hours on a flight.

        • No doubt that is true, but I don’t think (for me anyway) that it is that I really want to sit away from my kids, but rather I think it is valuable to think through when it would be okay.

  20. I think your thoughts are completely reasonable. I agree with you. I think as a parent you have to accurately assess the maturity and communication skills of your child in a public setting (like dealing with fellow passengers on an airplane). If you think your kid at 8 is mature and confident enough to sit next to someone on an airplane with you in another row, then go for it. Age is just a number. Some 8 year olds are more mature and able to handle themselves better than 12 year olds. As a parent you make an honest, good faith assessment of your child and go from there.

    • Agree – age is a guide, but it isn’t always the best guide. I know my older daughter is well beyond her age in some areas, and in others she isn’t. Most (thought not all) parents will make the right call for their kids I think.

  21. If you look into the details of this event. It is evident that they have low morals. This is reflected in the food situation as well as having a young child sit away from these legal custodians.

  22. I work around the area of child protection in the UK. The original post concerned me greatly. Here it would not be considered right or safe to leave a child alone at home before the age of 12 in any circumstances and I can’t see that it is really any better leaving your child on public transport myself – though it’s probably more common. A plane is public transport and there could be serious repercussions for an unaccompanied child (in the real sense) even in a relatively minor emergency situation. I think you need to be talking about children being teenagers at least before being allowed to be separated from parents on planes. But I’ll echo Ronjoe above – parents should consider their children’s needs rather than their own, first and foremost. You never NEED to be in first or business.

  23. Another way to look at this is the followingscenario: if you were seated with your child in economy and one upgrade were available, do you take it and leave your child in economy, or do you pass on it so you can remain with your child? I would assume most parents would stay with their 8-10 year old.

  24. My two daughters (12 and 15) and my oldest’s 15 year old friend are going on a vacation together. I originally booked our seats with the two older kids sitting together right in front of me and my youngest. My youngest has special needs (genetic disability) although she loves to travel. My oldest daughter has been flying alone since she was 8. She is a seasoned traveler and very responsible. Our flight is 6.5 hours. I am an MVP Gold and I got my youngest daughter’s ticket with a companion fair and my oldest and her friends with miles. 3 days before our flight I got upgraded to first class with my youngest. The seating will make it easier since they are larger and she won’t be sitting with another person in our row. I feel awful being separated from my oldest and because they are milage tickets I can’t use my first class upgrades on their tickets. I took the upgrades but now I wonder if I should go back to sit with them just incase their is an emergency.

    • * My two daughters (12 and 15), my oldest’s 15 year old friend, and I are going on a vacation together.

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