The Navigator: Airline seating fees seen as anti-family

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.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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