I flew United at Thanksgiving with my 6- and 11-year-old children. In the past, if we weren't seated together, the gate agent would ask people to switch. Eventually they would find us seats together. But this was different. Our seats were rows apart, and somehow it was made my responsibility to ask people to move. The passengers I asked moved after I explained the situation, but one man seemed disgruntled. I later found out that he had paid an upgrade fee to sit in that particular seat. Is this situation common? Will I find this to be a problem with all airlines now? And is there anything I can do that doesn't involve paying an upgrade fee? I happen to think the $2,000 I already paid is quite enough.
This is not just United; it's nearly every airline. Three traveling parents described the issue this way:
"That is the reality of things right now," said Billy Sanez, vice president of marketing and communications for FareCompare.com, an airfare website. He's also a dad who travels with his children, ages 3 and 5.
About trying to get seats together, an email message from Amber Johnson, editor of Mile High Mamas (www.milehighmamas.com), a parenting community based in Colorado, said this: "We've had ongoing headaches with this very topic."
Jennifer Miner, a travel writer, a traveling mom and co-creator of the site the Vacation Gals (thevacationgals.com), said in an email: "If it seems that it's been getting harder to sit with your children on airplanes, it's not just your imagination, and it's not just you."
But why? During the economic downturn, airlines took planes out of service and reduced routes. Now an improving economy means more people are flying and load factors — how many seats on a plane are sold — are higher because capacity isn't what it was.
Remember when about 30% of the seats on a domestic flight were empty? You're thinking back to 2002, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics. These days, load factors are about 85%, and last July they hit 87.4%.
That means that on, say, an Airbus A330, which can carry about 335 passengers, about 43 seats were vacant if you flew in July. That's not a lot of wiggle room for anyone needing to change.
Couple that space crunch with airlines' increased desire to monetize everything they can, including asking fliers to pay more for the seats that make it possible for families to sit together, and you have a seatmare.
For its part, United spokesman Mary Clark wrote in an email: "We do [everything] possible to seat families together — whether the seat assignment request is made at the time of booking the reservation, or at the gate or onboard the aircraft on the day of departure.
"When there is a flight schedule or aircraft change, our automated re-accommodation systems attempt to maintain similar seat assignments. During peak travel periods when flights are full, such as during the holidays, there are often limited options available."
Besides not wanting your kids annoying others, there are other, more important concerns about seating your children next to strangers: What happens in an emergency? And what if the person next to your child is unsavory?
Sanez, Johnson and Miner offered these suggestions to solve the problem:
Bite the bullet and pay to secure the seat. That's not anybody's favorite option, but Sanez acknowledges he has done it for peace of mind.
Consider Southwest. Some carriers charge a pretty penny for securing those "upgraded" seats, but Southwest, which doesn't have assigned seating, has early-bird seating for $12.50 a ticket, Johnson noted. That adds $25 to the cost of each ticket round-trip, considerably less than the cost of most "upgrades" on other carriers.
Check in exactly 24 hours (and we mean exactly) before your flight and see what you can snag. If you're a family of four, even a two-and-two arrangement is better than four single seats.
Make the gate agent or the flight attendant your ally. Be as charming as you can be. If the gate agent can't help, as in Park's dilemma, Miner suggested turning to the cabin crew. "Flight attendants are happy to help families sit together; they know that happy children are quiet children," she said. "I can't count the number of times I've been asked to change seats (when flying solo) to help parents sit with their kids on flights."
Work toward elite status. This may seem out of reach for leisure travelers, but there can be ways around that, our recent More for Your Money column explained and offered seven strategies for getting elite status that comes in handy when you need to make things happen.
Finally, enlist the help of social media. Sanez noted that Twitter, for example, can be an effective means of getting the attention of your carrier's customer service. (And it's not just for seat changes but for many, many issues.)
If none of this works and you are seated with the kids and the other parent is seated solo, don't be too quick to assume you're at a disadvantage. On a long flight, Miner was sitting with her children; husband Dave was by himself. He asked his wife to switch seats with him.
"He explained that the guy sitting next to him claimed to be a former Navy SEAL who leaned in very close to talk, had bad breath, and was urgently sharing with his seatmate a variety of conspiracy theories.... Worse, he bought one of [the airline's] packaged lunches, lemon pepper tuna, which came with a pop-top lid.
"The [supposed] ex-Navy SEAL peeled it back and said casually, 'They make us take our shoes off and throw out our open drinks at security, but I could slice your jugular open with this lid in 3.5 seconds.'"
Miner stayed seated with the children.
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