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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.


More on MSN Money:

May 30, 2012 10:47AM

Let the market decide if this is right or not.  They are not in business as a convenience to you and your family.  I have four kids and I realize that while I would prefer to pay less, the companies that I choose to do business with don't owe me anything.  I have two choices, do business with them or not . . . So do you.  In a sense you vote with your wallet.  If they make a bad business decision they will lose money.

May 30, 2012 12:26AM
The CEO of United was paid $13.4 Million dollars last year.

Airline companies are lying whores. They could care less about you. If airlines could remove the padding on your seats and the seat belts to save the fuel cost of that weight they would.

Big business just does not care about the consumers. Customer service and satisfaction is a thing of the past.

Next thing, pay toilets on the plane. Don't have change? You can charge a diaper!
May 29, 2012 11:21PM
Regulation of the airlines is absolutely necessary.  In addition, the BS that the airlines "need" the income is just that, BS.  They can afford to pay their executives millions of dollars.  If they're so hard up financially, cut executive salaries (and total compensation to under $100,000.  When that happens, I might believe their poor me stories.
May 30, 2012 12:29AM
Unless the airline can tell me the person sitting next to my child can pass a background check, I will not let my child sit by anyone but me.  They cannot tell me if my child is sitting by child molester, I guess I will pay the price of gas. Once again, money before people!
May 30, 2012 9:11AM
Fly Southwest.  Get your boarding pass number exactly 24 hours before the flight and you should have no problems seating a family of four.  The other airlines are nothing but piece of s*h*i*t crooks. 
May 30, 2012 1:55AM
And this is why I only travel Southwest Airlines! Never had any difficulty with them especially when we travel with my baby cousins.
May 31, 2012 11:58AM
Here's what you can do... fly Southwest!!
May 29, 2012 10:25PM

Air Lines are going to fee themselves right out of business.  I wish the U.S. Government would go back to regulating them as they have gone too far on fees.  Soon they will have a boarding fee, Deplaning fee,  I think it's time.  I will think twice about flying.

May 30, 2012 1:28AM

All this is happening because Americans are willing to "PAY" the price. Protest people, protest! They do what they want because we are always willing to pay extra. This doesn’t happen in other countries like Germany because people boycott the companies. Let's refuse to pay this and see if they continue in business. Or let's pay it and expect more charges in the near future.  PASS IT ON.

Jun 9, 2012 3:29PM

The airlines want business travelers more than accomodating the once a year traveler families. The business travelers tend to buy more expensive seats, buy expensive food and drinks, and use more airport services that all kick back to the airline (in legal fashion, if not entirely fair to consumers).


Families should consider alternatives to their travel, and bring back the tradition of the "travel as part of the vacation", at least when not going abroad. The best trips my family has taken have used automobile or train travel, with some of the best stories from our travels are not from the planned destination. Unless families have relatives to visit overseas, the family vacation has plenty of interesting options across the Americas. Children may find more value in the European or Asian trek when they are old enough to appreciate what they are doing in these locales.


Personally, I am not willing to "give up" anything that I've paid for on an air trip, such as sitting in a middle seat or across from the bathroom, so that airlines can claim that they provide ways for families to sit together. Families need to use travel agencies (which are no longer expensive) to guarantee their seats, and to follow other advice in this article about booking early, be selective about carriers, look for discounted package deals, and be prepared to travel. Don't expect the world to happily wait for you as you unpack juice boxes or DVD's in the boarding line. Don't forget about the train, and if you have a minivan, use it! ;) Enjoy your trip.

Jul 13, 2012 6:06PM

As a frequent flyer, I spend a good portion of my life on the road for business and the perks that I get from the airlines are earned. If you want to get the same perks, then live my life. Your other option is to pay extra for the seats you desire. I'm sick and tired of these whiney columns feeling sorry for the families that are too cheap to pay for the seats they want, and insist on flying instead of driving.


If cost is an issue, it is generally cheaper for a family to drive where they want (all in one car) than to pay airfare. That's what my wife and I did for years when we traveled - and so did just about everyone I know.


Also, the argument that it's unsafe for kids to board with the rest of the passengers is ridiculous. What is unsafe is parents who refuse to hold a child's hand while boarding. I am so tired of kids wandering around through the plane without parental guidance. Today's parents spend more time worrying about themselves than they do paying attention to their kids.


As a last comment - as a NY State resident, Chuck Schumer should spend his time worrying about what his state needs, and not wasting it on ridiculous topics like family boarding for airplanes. I never voted for the man, and I never will. He is a waste of my tax dollars.

May 30, 2012 11:38AM
I have no problem flying with my kids and never did because I don't do things at the last minute. I have always booked seats in advance and we have picked out our seats online. Doing it in advance they all cost the same. The one time when I was not able to reserve my seat I sat my kids next to each other and I never had to ask the man to move he just did so we could sit next to each other. People are very nice in letting families sit together. 
May 30, 2012 10:59AM
Specially on Delta Air line they suck big time. Why I stop flying is because they so expensive in a way.
Jul 13, 2012 5:34PM
Your children are your responsibility,. You chose to have them, to travel with them, so pay up, or do what ever it takes.. It is any other strangers' job or responsibility to assist or subsidize you, nor is it the airline company's or govt's responsibility either. Having children involves extra effort and sacrifice, what did you expect?
Jun 9, 2012 5:51PM
Fly Southwest.  No assigned seats.  Just pay $10 for early-bird checkin, and you will get an A boarding group, and be just fine...
May 30, 2012 6:10PM

If you can define "fairness", please do.

Supposing you can, try applying it in the reverse direction: is requiring airlines to keep families sitting together "fair" to the airlines? Do they have to do it without raising ticket prices??

In a world where airlines struggle to lose *less* money, can we afford "fairness"?

Better idea: let each airline figure out which market it wants to pursue, and how they do it.

There will be winners and losers, but the customers will win more than they lose.

May 31, 2012 12:34AM
These all sound like good reasons to fly WN. 
May 30, 2012 2:55PM

South west is the best.... most friendly

May 30, 2012 10:36AM
Airlines should have it when you're purchasing 3 or more seats you're given seats together... including the higher priced seats... realizing there may be children traveling with parents.  When doing this the higher priced seats should be the same as the other.  Kind of like receiving a "bulk rate" for purchasing 3 or more seats.
May 30, 2012 11:51AM
I fly as infrequently as possibly with my two young girls.  As a single mom, I don't have the luxury of splitting up my kids and sending them to another spot to sit alone next to some stranger.  And I refuse to pay extra for a "special seat" that really isn't any more special than the one next to it.  First class is one thing.. coach, no way!   And since we aren't allowed to board early anymore, I take my time, I take up as much space as possible.  If they are not going to accomodate us, why should I accomodate them?    In my opinion, if airlines want to act like this, I can act just as stupid.   I will take my time and delay the take off as long as I can, and to be honest, the only people you have to thank for it are the greedy airlines :)   But no worries to all of you frequent fliers out there... as I said, I avoid it as much as possible.  It's only those long cross country visits to family that I am forced to fly rather than drive.  I would much rather spend 16 hours in the car with my kids then 6 hours in an airport/plane.  Family flying is TERRIBLE!  So sad too since it puts a damper on tourism choices for lots of families these days. 
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