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Flying With Kids – Yours Or Otherwise

If you, like me, have had the distinct pleasure of flying with children aged 5 and under in the past few years, you’re already familiar with the process’s stressful and sometimes tantrum-inducing moments.

I decline to say whether the tantrums were the kids’ or mine.

For those of you who haven’t experienced flying with kids recently, it goes something like this: You wait in line with your little angels to check the stroller, Pack ’n Play and car seat, hoping that they all make it to the correct destination. You drag your kids and all of their accoutrements through the airport. You wait in line with your increasingly less patient little angels and go through security. You get to the gate and watch as your, by now, very rambunctious little angels wrestle each other to the ground. Finally, you and your minions board the plane.

If you are unlucky, at this point you discover that your seat assignment is 16D, while Timmy sits in 20A and Jane sits in 5C. As for baby Nora? Well, her seat is 12B, between two less-than-eager-to-help businessmen.

This scenario may sound extreme, but unfortunately it’s not uncommon.

Gone are the days when airline travel was a luxury, when one could “Fly the Friendly Skies” while George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played in the background. Airlines have found ways to nickel-and-dime passengers for everything from baggage fees, to snacks, to extra blankets and pillows. So airlines charging extra for specific seats is really the next logical step in an ongoing progression.

Low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines don’t include a seat assignment in their base fare. Travelers may choose to pay extra to select a seat; if they decide not to pony up, the airline will pick a seat for them. All three note that your party might be separated in the automatic seat assignment process.

Higher-tier airlines such as Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and, as of this fall, United Airlines, still let you pick your seat, but reserve certain seats in the main cabin for frequent travelers. Passengers without elite status on certain airlines don’t even see some available seats when they are booking. For instance, a Wall Street Journal article provided two seat maps for an American Airlines flight flying from Paris to Charlotte, North Carolina eight weeks prior to its July 16, 2016 departure. Elite status passengers could see 72 open seats, including 18 regular coach seats, available with no additional fee. Passengers without elite status could only see 38 open seats, all of which required an extra fee. Two years later the situation is as bad or worse. This means that, once the adjacent viewable seats fill, customers paying the base fare must either pay a premium for upgraded seats or take their chances without a seat assignment.

Southwest Airlines is, for now, the only U.S. holdout. There are no reserved seats at all on Southwest, and travelers with children under 6 are allowed to board between the “A” and “B” groups (meaning only 60 passengers have boarded before them). This means that families flying Southwest are seldom, if ever, entirely split up, because there should be plenty of options left when they board.

For lone travelers, airlines automatically assigning seats can be annoying. After all, no one wants a middle seat, and some people have strong window or aisle preferences. But this annoyance grows to the level of a real problem for families, especially parents traveling with very young kids. No one wants a parent to have to ask a stranger to watch a 4-year-old for a few hours, least of all the stranger in question. Should families be forced to pay extra fees just so they can sit together?

Congress said no. In 2016, it passed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to issue rules to seat families with children under 13 together when practicable. If airlines offer any seat assignments for free, they must make seats together available to families without charging additional fees. Airlines that charge for all advance seat assignments must make their least expensive option available to family groups. However, the Transportation Department recently determined that “issuing a policy was not appropriate at this time,” The Wall Street Journal reported. When or if it will be appropriate is anyone’s guess.

A spokesman for American told the Journal in 2016 that three days prior to departure, the airline checks for families with children and tries to seat them together. He claimed that this system is successful for the most part, but stories of families being separated are not hard to find. The only recourse separated families have is to talk to a gate agent or flight attendant, though when flights are very full, there may be little they can do. The final option is to bargain with other passengers to try to broker a seat exchange. While other passengers often take pity on parents, they themselves may have paid extra for particular seats, making them more reluctant to switch to a less desirable alternative.

Even families who do secure seat assignments together, either through luck or shelling out the extra cash to sit together, cannot trust that they will avoid this mess. A family from Tennessee recently took a vacation to Vancouver, British Columbia. During a layover in Minneapolis, the family of four discovered that while the father remained next to the 7-year-old daughter, the mother and 5-year-old had been reassigned. Gate agents and flight attendants claimed there was nothing they could do, and the passengers on either side of the 5-year-old refused to move. Similar stories are easy to find in news stories and traveler forums.

This unnecessary hassle on top of traveling with children creates more stress for already exhausted parents. It’s ridiculous to demand that parents rely on the kindness of strangers to swap seats so they can sit next to their children. It may seem like common sense to keep parents with their children while sitting in a long tube traveling through the sky at 35,000 feet, but airlines obviously care most about their bottom line.

As for any passengers who refuse to let me sit next to my child, they are more than welcome to get her a juice and listen to her life story (or to her screaming) for the duration of the flight.

Client Service Associate Aline Pitney is the author of Chapter 12, “What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?”, in our firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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