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Are airlines unfair to families?

Some recent changes in airline policies and pricing are making it more difficult and expensive for families to fly.

By Karen Datko May 29, 2012 6:48PM

The airlines are making it much more difficult for families with children to travel these days. In recent developments:

  • United Airlines joined US Airways and American Airlines in no longer offering preboarding for families with kids flying in coach.
  • Families are having more difficulty getting adjoining seats. That's because airlines are reserving more seats for frequent fliers and those willing to pay, usually $50 round trip, for the most desirable seats in coach -- window and aisle, and closest to the front of the plane.  (Post continues after video.)

Here's one result of that recent change, says The Associated Press:

On a July flight from Dallas to San Francisco on American, a recent search showed only 28 of 144 coach seats available for passengers unwilling to pay extra. Of those, 21 were middle seats. There were five spots where a couple could sit together; groups of three or more were out of luck.

Does this seem unfair to families, as well as to other passengers? Consider:

  • Kids, particularly younger children, should sit next to parents. They need someone to attend to their needs (and other passengers need someone identifiable to complain to when a noisy kid starts kicking the back of their seat).
  • The airlines say families can ask for the gate agent's help or ask fellow passengers to change seats. Would you be willing to give up a seat that you paid extra for? I wouldn't, and, according to the Interactive Travel Services Association, an online survey found that 64% of those surveyed said they wouldn't either.
  • Boarding with babies and toddlers in the mix seems potentially hazardous when everyone's jostling for space in the overhead bins.
  • Extra fees for seats make booking a flight even more complicated than it already was, particularly for families.

Image: Mother and daughter watching in-plane movie © Ron Levine/Photodisc/Getty ImagesCharlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, says a couple traveling together already face "a matrix with 64 different variations of baggage fees." Add in two kids and extra fees for sitting together, and the number of choices is off the charts.


How much extra will a family have to pay? Good question.

"What makes the behavior of the airlines even more exasperating for families is the failure to provide airfares on an 'all-in' (fares, taxes and fees) basis upfront," Art Sackler, executive director of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, said in a press release.


"Because many airlines withhold that information, families can't figure out how much more it will cost them to sit together until after they purchase their basic tickets -- and that could be hundreds of dollars round trip. And comparing prices among airlines including fees for seats or other add-ons before purchase? Forget about it," he said.


What's a traveling family to do, besides drive?

  • Book early. But remember that Allegiant and Spirit -- the two airlines that charge for carry-ons -- charge extra if you get a seat assigned before check-in.
  • Check as seat assignments open up starting five days before you fly, the AP says.
  • NerdWallet has a new fee-comparison tool to help you compare across airlines.
  • Don't feel sorry for the airlines, particularly as fuel prices drop. Says MarketWatch:
These higher prices and lower costs raise the likelihood of top-line revenue growth for many carriers, which will help them pay for all the new, more fuel-efficient jets they've ordered.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has asked airlines to reconsider charging families more for the privilege of sitting together. Good luck, Chuck, with that.


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