Do Airlines Hate Families? Extra Fees for Flying Families

Should a mother pay extra to sit next to her 4-year-old child on a transcontinental flight?

Airlines say, of course! Everyone else is pretty sure it’s a bad idea.

Earlier this summer, a maelstrom of media outrage erupted in response to airline fee hikes. Journalists and bloggers love to gripe and groan about airline fees, but this story found an impassioned audience with a particularly volatile group of travellers: families.

To be fair, airlines are probably not completely evil. They aren’t imposing malicious policies with the sole intent of tearing children from their mothers. The detriment to families is a side effect of a broader change.

Over the past year, Frontier, American, Delta and United have increased the percentage of seats that cost extra (or require elite status) to reserve. Seat selection has always been subject to fees, but airlines are now placing additional charges on a greater portion of window and aisle seats–anywhere from $25 to $59 a ticket.

The result? High prices for group seating. As if baggage fees weren’t enough, a mother, father and child could potentially incur a charge over $100 when requesting a row together. Airline fees are always on the rise, but some feel charging for family seating crosses a line.

Voices of reason

In response to a report from the Associated Press, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded by urging airlines to exercise a little compassion. “Children need access to their parents, and parents need access to their children,” Schumer said. “Unnecessary airline fees shouldn’t serve as a literal barrier between mother and child.”

Representative Jerrold Nadler introduced a bill that calls for regulations to ensure family seating. “Families should not be stuck paying hidden fees, or buying ‘premium’ seats, simply because they wish to be seated together on crowded flights,” he said.

The CTA suggested that “voluntarily waiving all seat-reservation fees for children aged six and younger would be a good start. Then, gate agents and flight attendants could be encouraged to use common sense in dealing with families, making every effort to seat them together.”

Fortunately, efforts of traveller advocacy groups are not being completely ignored. Senator Schumer made a series personal calls to airline CEOs and was able to secure commitments from Virgin America and JetBlue not to charge for family seating. Schumer also announced he would talk with the DOT about regulations to require fully disclosed potential seating fees alongside ticket price quotes.

Keeping the family together

Despite outcries of politicians, media figures and consumer advocates, carriers will continue charging airline fees whenever possible. Until regulations are imposed, travellers must arm themselves with knowledge and exercise caution when booking flights. Here are several tips for finding family seating without incurring superfluous charges.

1. Fly with Virgin America or JetBlue. While they aren’t America’s most extensive airlines, they’ve already given their word not to charge for family seating. If they happen to have flight path for your destination, be sure to consider both ticket price and seat selection fees.

2. Book early. Not all seats require additional payment. The earlier you select your seat, the greater chance you’ll have of scoring a free row. Some airlines won’t let you choose a seat until a day or so before the actual flight. If that’s the case, remember to hop online as soon as the selection process opens.

3. Work with a travel agent. Travel agents sometimes have access to preferred seating that would be otherwise be unavailable. Generally, the cost of using an agent is negligible or free, so you don’t have to worry about the cost cancelling out potential savings.

4. Contact the airline in advance. Let them know you’re travelling with children and will need to sit together. You may be able to work something out without incurring additional fees. Remember, it never hurts to ask.

5.  Play the parent card. If by the day of your flight you still haven’t managed to wrangle suitable seating arrangements, arrive at the gate early. Take your child over to the gate agent and ask if anything can be done. More often than not, airline employees will make an honest effort to help.

6. Keep a close eye on online seating options. If there are no viable arrangements available immediately, don’t give up. Check daily. As the flight nears, seats may open up–especially in the last 5 days. As elite members are upgraded to first class, additional seating may become available.

7. Ask your fellow passengers to trade seats. This is a last resort but can work miracles in a pinch. Be polite but allow your desperation to shine through.

8. Relax. At the very worst, you’ll be separated from your kid for a couple hours. As nerve-wracking as it may seem, the chances of an incident are minimal. Ask the flight attendants to pay special attention to your child and introduce yourself to your child’s neighbours. And remember, you’ll be able to get up and check on your kid during the flight.

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