Does your family sit in the “Baby Ghetto”?

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A Wall Street Journal article came out this week that talked about a phenomenon that is frequently finding families traveling with children all seated together in the back of the plane.  This section of the plane was affectionately dubbed the “Baby Ghetto”.  I’m not sure I personally like using the term “ghetto” in this manner, but I do totally get what he is saying.  I actually contributed some information to this article, and I do have a few ideas as to why families are finding themselves in the back of the plane.  One of the main reasons is because many of the seats towards the front of the economy section of the plane are now reserved for people who are willing to pay a premium to sit in them (or have elite status that allows them to select those seats).  There probably aren’t that many traveling families that are willing or able to pay a surcharge for multiple people to have better seats, so they are often grouped in the back of the plane.

So, that’s one issue.  A much larger issue, in my opinion, is that airlines are splitting up families around the plane.  This is even happening when there is a very young child in the family.  In fact, I have not been able to find any airlines or FAA regulation that states an infant or toddler has to sit next to a caregiver.  Though please tell me if you know of one – there certainly should be one!  I have been contacted before when someone was looking for advice because an airline had split up their family with seat assignments all around the plane (they had a toddler) and the airline wanted them to pay for premium economy seating to be placed together.  The airline was seemingly unconcerned that a toddler had no guardian sitting next to them.  Whether you are for or against children traveling, clearly no one is a winner when a parent can’t sit next to their young child.  The airline’s advice in this case was to ask people to switch seats once they board.  While people are generally willing to help in cases like that, I don’t think that people should have to move seats just so a young child can sit next to their caregiver.  That should be an automatic – not something to work out on-board the plane.

We are very proactive when traveling to guard against these sorts of problems for our family.  First, I am very proactive with getting seat assignments together and I keep an eye on them as the flight gets closer.  You particularly want to double-check if you get a notification that an aircraft swap (a different type of plane then you originally were scheduled to fly on) has occurred.  If for some reason you are unable to select seats when you book your flight, you need to call into the airline and ask for seat assignments together.  Assuming that you do have a young child that you are traveling with, explain your situation and that and you need seats together.  The earlier in advance you do this the greater the likelihood of your success.  The closer it gets to departure the greater the chance that the plane is full and there aren’t seats together available.

When we fly on Southwest our strategy is a little different since they don’t assign seats ahead of time and your boarding position is what determines how good of a seat on board you are able to secure.  With Southwest we make sure to either check-in online exactly 24 hours before the flight, or pay $10 extra per person to secure a good boarding position.  Southwest does let families with small children board between the A and B boarding groups, so even if you don’t do either of those two things, you shouldn’t be one of the last ones to board.  Still, I like to be one of the first – especially when we travel with Little C.

One of our favorite “tricks” is to wait until many elites have been upgraded to first class 24 hours before the flight, and then move our assigned seats to better seats that have been freed up by the elite flyers who are now in first class.  As shown in the image below, even if you are on a plane where there isn’t a first class, the seats toward the front of the cabin that had been previously blocked off for elite flyers, open up to everyone at 24 hours before the flight.  This tactic doesn’t work as well on airlines who have large premium economy sections, but it has worked fantastically for us on Continental (at least until they add premium economy).

Most of those available white seats towards the front-half of the airplane were reserved for elite flyers until 24 hours before departure. You can see that the back-half of the plane is full while many of the previously reserved seats are open for assignment.  This means it is your chance to move up and grab a better seat for your family!

I’m actually not necessarily against a kid’s section of the plane, but until that officially happens, I prefer to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible.  How great would it be to have a quality kid’s section that played kid’s movies, had juice boxes, Goldfish snacks, and no nasty looks from other travelers?  We have also used some of our annual $200 airline fee credit with our American Express Platinum card to move up to Economy Plus seating on United in order to have a little more room.  I found that to be a great use of money – especially since it was all refunded by American Express.  A quick side-note about the Amex Platinum, if you are considering getting it, now is a great time as your $200 airline credit is per calendar year so right now you can take advantage of it for 2011 and then get a fresh $200 in 2012!  That is already a $400 value out of your $450 annual fee.  Click here to get more info about that and other top credit card offers.

Until a magical kid’s section is invented, my best advice is to be proactive from the day you make your reservation up through the day of departure to ensure that your family gets to sit together in whatever part of the plane you prefer.  This is especially true if you are flying during the busy holiday travel season that will be upon us this week.  Planes will be full and there won’t be very much wiggle-room if you don’t already have seat assignments together.  What have your experiences been when traveling with your family?

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  1. This is so true. My wife and I sat in the back of the plane last weekend and it was filled with little kids, and sick ones to boot. Good advice on being proactive with seat changes that is the only way to escape the kidie ghetto.

  2. I’ve found that sometimes airlines don’t allow families to sit at the front. One time I asked Virgin Blue to seat us closer to front and they told us that families are required to sit in one of the last three rows. Sounded silly to me, but not matter what we said we were still seated in the very last row.

  3. The airlines advice of either paying for premium seats or swapping on board sounds pretty annoying at first (and causes last minute hassle making seating arrangements on the plane), but if you think about it, what can the airline do if they are trying to fill seats scattered around the plane? Obviously if there is a family with a small child, and there are at least two adjacent seats on the plane, the airline should make the assignment, but if you’ve ever tried to do your seat assignments relatively near the flight, sometimes there is nothing but middle seats left.

    So the airline could move someone else to accommodate the family, but then the airline might have to compensate the person, since they’re being moved from their chosen seat. Personally I don’t really care too much as long as I don’t end up in a middle seat, but perhaps some people do. So there’s a “cost” of accommodating a family, and it is debatable who should pay for it. Forcing a family to upgrade to premium seats puts that cost on the family. Otherwise encouraging them to trade seats on the plane allows you to find someone who doesn’t really mind switching seats and allows a family to sit together, so it’s sort of a “cost-less” solution.

    • @Jerry, I totally get what you at saying. Some airlines are better than others at seat assignments, but it seems simple enough to me to ensure families with young children have seats together at the time of booking (before it gets more difficult close to departure). Then no one is out extra money or inconvenience.

  4. My co-workers and I were just discussing flying with children. They all have children (from young to grown) so their view on seeing a crying baby is either sympathy or being glad it isn’t their kid crying. I sympathize and curse that there’s no way to stop them from crying that wouldn’t violate laws (physics and legal) or offend the parents (whom I’m sure wish their kids would stop crying, too).

    Maybe I’ll pony up for premium economy if I do more red eyes …

    I admit I’ve seen kids sitting in business, though well behaved, I’ve wondered about. Yes, a little jealousy since I neither pay for J nor have sufficient status, but also wondering if practice and training does make a good traveler or indeed the babies in Y know they’re being packed in like cattle. Or more insidiously, one child starts to cry so the others follow suit.

  5. We were on BA this past summer and they certainly make sure that kids sit together with caregivers. In fact we were on two different reservations (BA miles and AA miles), one had 2 kids and 1 adult and the other just one adult. I forget the details, but basically BA charges for advance seat assignments unless you travel with children, in which case they either don’t charge at all or give a much longer window. On their website they say something to the effect of “we will make sure that you sit together with your child”. A quick phone call to BA explaining about 2 separate reservations and wanting the whole family to sit together got us the exact seats we wanted, in advance, without any charge.

    They also have a “kids eat first” policy, which is awesome.

    • Alex, last time I checked (and it has been a little while) BA allowed assignments at booking if traveling with infants and at 3 days prior to departure for kids under 11. I love the kids eat first rule! Another example of where keeping kids happy really keeps everyone happy. 🙂

  6. Yeah it seems like most times I see families with little ones they are middle to back of the plane. I’ve seen many people over the years offer to swap seats with parents so they can sit together. I would much rather see a mom and dad sitting with a child then to see them split up with other passengers mixed in. It’s no fun for the parents and no fun for the passengers in the cross fire. The worst is parents that don’t come prepared for the trip. They don’t have a handle on keeping the kids entertained. For goodness sake bring some cheerios and and some books or something.

  7. All you need is one elite flyer in your PNR and on [all] domestic carriers, you can get your entire party in the elite economy seats for no charge.

    Assuming there is at least one elite in your group, you should never be paying to sit in the forward seats.

    Against that, except for the economy comfort/plus seats, does it really matter where in Y you are seated – as long as you’re together?

    • NYBanker, as I mentioned in the post, you are right the biggest issue for me is absolutely sitting together. That said, if given a chance I would prefer being toward the front. It’s much easier boarding and deplaning that way. 🙂

  8. I work in the airline industry. Here are some reasons families with infants and little kids tend to end up in the back of the plane. In no particular order:
    1. Our rules state kids under 15 can’t sit in the emergency exit rows and should not be seated in the row in front of and behind the emergency exits. So, on a Boeing 717 which seats 117 in 2 class configuration you are already talking about 15 seats unabailable. We try to reserve the front sections of economy for wheelchair passengers. Then you have 12 business class seats and a lot of loyal elite passengers.
    2. You have 2 lavatories in the aft section of the plane should be self explanitory.
    3. These days a lot of parents are not versed in manners and teaching their young children. We find many seats after flights especially Orlando where it looks lie Hurricane Katrina blew through their seats. When my sister and I were young when we flew or for that matter travelled our parents laid down the law on how to behave. The alternatives were no more trips or stricter discipline. I now appreciate the boundries and rules they taught us. Sadly in todays society its lacking.
    4. If parents can afford to fly with their kids its fine with me but, please be prepared to face whatever consequences when your kids act up. It was your choice to be fruitful and multiply. Crying babies, there’s only so much one can do so I can’t fault you. However be prepared to not be Mr and Mrs Popularity with your fellow passengers. It is what it is. Also there seems to be a trend where parents take their kids out of school to go on vacation. Pick up after them if they feel the plane is a place to grind up Cheerios and spit all over. And, why do people insist on flying or for that matter eating in restaurants when their kids or for that matter they themselves are hocking loogies, wiping their runny noses etc…?

  9. @zippyjet, thanks for sharing your thoughts. There is no question that some parents do a poor job of discipline and managing their children both on a plane and in life in general. However, I by no means think that applies to all or even most of the families that fly. I’m not sure that parents should be prepared to “face consequences” when their children get upset on flights, but they certainly should be prepared to handle the situation as best as they can.

    I agree totally that parents should clean up after their children on flights. In fact, the children (assuming they aren’t infants) should help as well. Before I was a parent I would have also agreed with you about the runny nose thing as well, but as anyone with a young child in daycare or preschool can tell you, runny noses are a constant for at least half of the year. If we never left the house when C had a runny nose, we would literally never leave the house. The world of parenthood and babies certainly isn’t always a glamorous one. 😉

  10. I will never in a million years understand why parents bring infants and toddlers on aircraft for leisure trips. But with that said, when there is a swap in aircraft or irregular operations that cause seat assignments to be reissued, the airline should do everything possible to make sure families sit together, including seating them in E+, or putting them on a later flight without penalty.

  11. My wife and I are flying back to LAX from Hawaii tmw night with our 21 month old son. Last week, the best I can do was 2 x E+ seats window seats (11F, 12F). I checked late last week, and managed to move us to A,B. We desperately needed an aisle as our son was a handful coming over and I was up/down for 5 hrs walking (chasing) him. I checked again this morning, and C had opened up – I am assuming once some of the Premium flyers were bumped up to First. So, I would second MP’s suggestion to check every couple of days. We were dreading the thought of juggling our son between 11F & 12F for 5+ hours, but it’s worked out OK in the end (well, we will still plan & be prepared for worst case scenario – I get to nurse our son up & down the aisle for the majority of the flight. I might see if I can find that Benadryl 🙂

  12. As I read this I thought, what if the airlines blocked out some rows for families like they do for elites?

    It would minimize the musical chairs by reducing the chance of a family being split up.

  13. I frankly don’t mind being in the “baby ghetto” sometimes. If I’m flying on an airline where I don’t have status (and can’t snag a premium E+ seat), I usually choose the back of the plane when traveling with my toddler. Why, you ask?

    1) Proximity to bathrooms: my 2 1/2 year old was just potty trained and you need to be close to the bathrooms when an emergency hits!

    2) Likeliness to be seated near other children: the children may entertain or interact with my toddler at various points (which gives me a break!) and the parents of such children will inevitably understand if my toddler melts down.

    3) Chance of snagging an open middle seat: if there are empty seats on a flight, they are almost always middle seats in the last few rows of the plane. If I’m flying with my toddler by myself, I book the aisle and window seat of a three seat row and hope for the middle to stay open. Sometimes this gives me more space if the middle isn’t booked.

  14. Whats wrong wiith the word getto, maybe be its wrong to say black or jewish gettto, but now its ok to say gay or hipster getto…

    • @hola, I know that ghetto gets used in different ways now, but it has a very strong and negative meaning for many people so, for me it is a word I wouldn’t personally have selected to use in this way. Doesn’t personally impact me one way or another, but I know others feel differently. 🙂

  15. We had the “separated seating” happen once when we cashed in AAdvantage miles because the cabin nearly was full on the 2nd leg outbound. Fortunately, there were a couple of rows in which both aisle seats and one window were open. Knowing that most people prefer aisle to a middle seat, I booked the window and aisle on one side of the row and the aisle on the other, with our 3 year old having the window. Once we landed from 1st leg, we went directly to departure gate for 2nd leg. I explained the situation and offered to trade our aisle seat for the middle seat positioned between me (aisle) and my daughter (window). The 20 or 30-something young man traveling alone gladly accepted.

    With that said, I really like the way that Allegiant handles seating. Essentially, you can prepay for reserved seating. (We did this the first time we flew Allegiant.) Those with reserved seats board first. Then, any party with children 7 or younger can board immediately after. From my experience flying Allegiant to Orlando and back, more than 80% of seats were still available when such families boarded. While there are no guarantees, the $15 per seat fee for reserved seating is cost prohibitive for most travelers on a budget airline.

  16. By the way, when traveling with children we never are in a hurry. It is impossible to be so, and we regularly book 2+ hour layovers over short layovers to make sure that, most likely, we don’t have to hurry for a connection. We try to book seats as close to the back of the plane as possible mainly because there are less passengers within close proximity…especially if we are lucky enough to get the back row. The less people who are 3 rows away, the less people our kids have the potential to annoy.

  17. We try to sit in the back because it’s close to the restrooms. That’s a good thing when traveling with kids. Not so for an upcoming trip. No MileSAAver awards were available for coach, so we’re sitting in the first row of 1st Class on a transcontinental. Happy 2nd birthday to our youngest…traveling in style. Thankfully we take up the whole first row: each parent with a kid in the 2 sets of seats.

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