On the Spot: Families in flight — how to get seats together


Question: What’s up with families not being able to sit together on an airplane? Do the airlines hate families?

Answer: The answer to the second question begins to explain the first.

Airlines don’t hate families — at least, I don’t think so. Instead, it’s probably a case that airlines love revenue more — specifically, the revenue they get from unbundling airfares. You’ve seen that in many aspects of your plane trip: You often have to pay to check a bag (and sometimes you must pay for a carry-on as well), you pay more for a premium seat and sometimes you must pay to select a seat more than 24 hours in advance of your trip.


Some airlines are now charging more for a window or an aisle seat in some instances — and if you’re a family of three or more, you may face paying a fee or sitting apart when all the free “cheap” seats (often in the back of the plane) are already booked.

If you’re hoping the airline can help you, you may be hoping in vain. The airlines have little wiggle room when it comes to switching around people.

“The problem is that four or five years ago, 25% of the plane was empty,” said Rick Seaney, co-founder and chief executive of FareCompare, an airline ticket comparison site. “It was no big deal … but that’s not the case now.” If you look back even farther — to 2001, for instance — planes flew less than 70% full, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows, dipping to as low as 62% (and that was in January, before the Sept. 11 attacks). Last year, planes flew about 83% full — sometimes as much as 87% full (July 2011), bureau stats show. Bye-bye, seating leeway.

If you haven’t booked early and snagged those cheap seats, you still may be able to avoid the scenario in which your 4-year-old is seated between two strangers. The key, said Jami Counter, senior director at Seatguru, a guide to choosing the best airline seats, may be doing something old-fashioned. “I would encourage the traveler to call the airline and say, ‘Look, this is the situation,’” he said. If you have a problem with seating, transacting business only online is a mistake. Even with little wiggle room, a seat may open up that can be yours.

If that doesn’t solve your problem, both experts suggest checking back 24 hours before your flight; that’s when some seats are released. (Airlines often hold back seats for its best customers and make them available only when it’s sure that bestie doesn’t want them.) That worked for me recently; I wasn’t traveling with a family but I was squashed in the middle seat of a four across on what turned out to be a 12-hour flight. I decided to check one more time before zero hour and lo and behold, I got an aisle seat, which probably saved my life, never mind the lives of those who would have been sitting around this restless flier.

If that doesn’t work, your next recourse is the gate agent or the flight attendant. (One frequent-flying colleague swears that a 1-pound box of See’s chocolates often nets him a better seat. I don’t have the heart to point out that the airline seat selection fee is significantly less than a box of See’s or that the fact that he oozes charisma doesn’t hurt.) And if that doesn’t work? Beg your fellow passengers. And if that doesn’t work? Seaney says you can let the chips fall where they may and see if someone will volunteer to move so said 4-year-old can sing to you instead of that other passenger all the way home.

Given the airlines’ need for revenue — American Airlines lost $358 million in 2011 and United lost $448 million in the first quarter of 2012 alone — perhaps the airlines can figure how to monetize passengers’ desires not to sit next to children or other people who seem undesirable. Never thought of a 4-year-old as a possible revenue stream, but whoa, baby, this may be an idea whose time has come.

Next week we’ll talk about the strange case of a frequent-flying couple who can’t seem to find desirable seats — and we’re not talking about seats near kids — no matter when they book their seats.

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