When Jennifer Huff checked in for her US Airways flight at Reagan National Airport recently, she was told that she would be in seat 4C. Then came the surprise: Her 2-year-old daughter, Alexa, had been assigned to seat 11C, seven rows behind.
“What if she gets sick? What if she’s scared?” Huff, 34, of Alexandria, said at the thought of sitting apart from her toddler on the three-hour flight to Pensacola, Fla. “Someone is going to have to change that diaper.”
Huff persuaded the ticket counter attendant to move her within one row of her daughter. It wasn't until she and Alexa reached the gate that another airline employee clinched them adjacent seats.
The stressful quest for seats is one that parents have begun to encounter with increasing frequency in recent years as more airlines have instituted extra charges for “preferred” or “premium” coach seats, leaving fewer free seats together. It is a challenge families are bound to face during the busy holiday travel season when planes are packed, and the issue has drawn attention on Capitol Hill.
For people traveling alone or on business, the extra fees — most range from $5 to $100 one way for domestic flights — can amount to a relatively minor expense for an aisle seat, extra legroom or an unobstructed view.
But for families, particularly those with multiple children, such fees can add hundreds of dollars to the hefty costs of group travel. On some flights, 30 percent to 40 percent of coach seats are now reserved for those willing to pay extra, airline experts say. Passengers not willing to pay up often are left with middle seats, rows apart.
“Everyone who doesn’t want to pay [extra] is going after more limited inventory,” said Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of SeatGuru.com, a division of the TripAdvisor travel Web site.
United Airlines started the trend in the United States in 2005, when it made its “Economy Plus” seats — with more legroom — available not just to frequent fliers but to any passenger willing to pay extra. In 2008, US Airways began selling window and aisle seats toward the front as “Choice Seats,” and in late 2011 Delta began selling “Preferred Seating.” American Airlines unveiled its “Main Cabin Extra” seating, with more legroom and early boarding, in March.
Loree Tillman, 44, of Houston said she is often assigned a seat away from her 9-year-old son, Tyler, because she can’t afford premium seats. For Tillman, it’s not just an inconvenience — it’s also a matter of safety and peace of mind.
“The person sitting next to him hasn’t had a background check,” Tillman said recently as she and Tyler waited at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport for their flight home after attending a White House holiday event for military families. “I don’t know if he’s a pervert.”
Tillman held up their US Airways boarding passes. Her son had been assigned to 30B, she to 29E. If the flight attendants wouldn’t help, she said, she would persuade the person seated next to her son to switch.
“I tell people, ‘He talks a lot — it’s a long flight,’ ” Tillman said. “I say, ‘Do you like Pokeman? Do you like Nintendo? Because he’s going to tell you all about it.’ ”
Parents interviewed recently at Washington area airports said fellow passengers eventually agree to switch seats or are persuaded to do so by flight attendants. But the uncertainty heightens the anxiety and stress of flying with children.
Airline cost-cutting has led to fewer (and fuller) flights, and finding a spare seat to facilitate a switch has become more difficult. Meanwhile, passengers who are traveling without children and who paid extra for a particular seat can find themselves with two equally unappealing options: Relinquish a premium seat or spend hours babysitting someone else’s cooped-up child.
The issue has caught the attention of at least one member of Congress. In May, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to prevent airlines from charging extra for families that need consecutive seats. Schumer also asked the airlines to voluntarily waive such fees for passengers with children.
LaHood responded in July that the Transportation Department has no authority to regulate such fees. LaHood said he had spoken with airline executives and “urged them not to charge fees that would negatively impact families.”
“Nevertheless,” LaHood wrote, “more needs to be done, and I will continue to raise this issue with the airline industry.”
Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the airline industry group Airlines for America, said seat fees are part of the industry’s changing business model.
With “razor-thin profit margins” — profits averaged 77 cents per passenger per flight last year — airlines must charge for such things as premium seating and early boarding to keep overall ticket prices lower, she said.
Families are most likely to be separated when their seats are assigned at the airport, airline officials say. Airline Web sites that generally sell out seats available at no extra charge often require people to get them at check-in. Passengers who book through some non-airline travel Web sites also can’t get seats confirmed until check-in.
Airline officials said they use seats that remain unassigned until 24 hours before a flight to re-seat family members together. When that fails, they said, gate agents and flight attendants step in.
“I’ve worked for American Airlines for 20 years, and I’ve never heard of an instance when we haven’t been able to arrange for a parent to sit with their child,” airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.
In a recent Web site posting — titled “Do airlines hate families?” — the traveler advocacy group Consumer Travel Alliance called on airlines to waive fees for children 6 and younger to be seated with a parent. The need to switch seats at the last minute to keep families together complicates the check-in and boarding process for all passengers, said the group’s director, Charlie Leocha.
“There’s this period of uncertainty,” Leocha said. “People are having to barter for seats at the airport. They’re playing seat roulette, which is just not fair to customers.”
United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart said families end up separated most often when the airline changes the type of aircraft assigned to the flight. The computer is programmed to keep families together when it reassigns seats, he said. When that doesn’t work, he said, gate agents get involved.
Parents say they know their fussy babies and seat-kicking toddlers don’t win them much sympathy from many other fliers. Several said they don’t want special privileges, just an acknowledgment that children need care and supervision.
Katrina Haverty, a Louisville resident, said she was assigned seats away from her 4-year-old son, Oliver, on a Delta Air Lines flight in March between Montana and Florida. “It was a huge pain,” Haverty said. “They told me to try to trade seats with people, and people wouldn’t.”
Haverty, 25, recalled the March flight recently as she wheeled her 18-month-old daughter, Penny, in a stroller through Reagan National, on a family visit to Haverty’s brother in Rosslyn. Oliver trotted behind with a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack.
After Haverty declined in March to pay extra for a seat next to Oliver, she said, a flight attendant managed to get them together. “It was very stressful,” Haverty said. “What if something goes wrong, God forbid? You’re the one most equipped to take care of your kid.”
Jamie Pearson, publisher of the Travel Savvy Mom Web site, said she is resigned to the added costs of traveling with children. Airlines cater to top-paying business travelers and frequent fliers more than to families that fly together once or twice a year, Pearson said. In November, she said, she paid $130 extra, round-trip, for seats together when she and her then-12-year-old daughter flew American Airlines between San Francisco and Dallas. The checked bag fees added another $100, round-trip.
“What can you do?” Pearson said. “The airlines are in trouble. They’re shaking us down. . . . I think whining about it is sort of silly. It’s the real world. Airlines aren’t nonprofits.”