By The Washington Post · Drew Jones
Launched last week from Consumer Reports, an online petition that has amassed over 65,000 signatures asks American, Delta and United Airlines to stop separating families onboard and to nix fees for those who select seats together. It claims that there's a security hazard in having children 13 and younger seated away from their parents and that it burdens passengers who have to fly next to unaccompanied children.
Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, said he's supportive of the Consumer Reports efforts to step in and help boost a cause he has championed for years. "I'm thrilled to get their support," he said.
In 2016, Congress passed a law mandating that families be able to sit together at no extra cost. When deciding who would evaluate the new rules, Congress allotted for a period of discussion and for experts to study the effect of the rules to existing regulations. But then, according to Leocha, because of the Department of Transportation's deference to the airline industry and the looming election, the momentum to adopt the new steps halted. Consumer Reports solicited complaints from families who had been separated while flying. When presented to the DOT, Leocha said, the agency claimed the number of complaints didn't reach an actionable level.
The types of complaints included an incident on a United flight where a child was placed in an aisle seat next to a stranger, an American flight where attendants attempted to split up three children - one of them was a 2-year-old - and a Delta flight over Thanksgiving where an 8-month-old was assigned a middle seat away from the parents.
The DOT did issue guidance for families when making travel arrangements together. The guidance includes avoiding basic economy fares because they "are often lower fares and may not provide consumers with the ability to select a seat. These tickets may not meet the needs of families with young children," according to the website.
Based on the current rules, Leocha said, low-fare options like basic economy seats exclude families, who are blocked from the cheapest options because they don't allow reservations for seats. Instead, families reluctantly upgrade, paying more while jumping through unnecessary hurdles.
"The families are being stuck with a double-whammy," he said. "First, on the basic economy, they can't get any seat reservations. Then they've got to go up to the next level. And then when they go up to the next level, they can't even sit together without having to pay even more money."
Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United, said the airline uses an automatic system to make modifications to reservations, ensuring that children are placed next to parents. If timing becomes a factor, reservations can be modified at the gate, and when families check in, agents prioritize family seating.
United has gone as far as introducing a family-friendly lane and check-in system at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It has an 80 percent success rate of keeping families together, according to Hobart, who added that the system is applied to all classes of seats, including basic economy.
"It's in everyone's interest that families are able to sit together on that aircraft - the customers themselves, the other passengers and our onboard crew as well," Hobart said.
Rainer Jenss, president of the Family Travel Association, sees it as an issue of right and wrong.
"Airlines are charging premiums for the right for people to sit where they want," he said. "And that includes sitting next to your travel companion. That is a convenience [fee]. A lot of people are arguing, myself included, that it should not be considered a convenience for a parent to sit next to their child."
Jenss believes family seating should be standard across the industry and says that even a small number of complaints should be enough for airlines to do the right thing.
Jenss pointed to the rules of some international airlines - like Air Canada - that guarantee family seating. He suggested that U.S. airlines could do a better job of analyzing their data to see when families are most likely to travel and then expect that demand.
Major airlines could take steps, he added, like Southwest Airlines has, and let families board first, or block off specific areas for families, like the back of the plane, so other travelers wouldn't have to worry about being seated next to unaccompanied children and parents could keep an eye on theirs.
Representatives for American and Delta said they prioritize family seating and have systems that ensure children are seated with an adult.
"Regardless of the type of ticket purchased, Delta works with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their travel needs are met," Delta spokeswoman Lisa Hanna said in a statement to The Washington Post. "When customers have seating questions, we encourage them to reach out to us as soon as possible to allow for the opportunity to address their concerns."
American Airlines said the company has spent a "considerable amount" of time developing a system that is designed to ensure that no child 15 and younger is seated alone, regardless of seating assignments. As an added step, American blocks out a certain number of seats on a given flight due to re-bookings and unexpected events, so even if arrangements aren't made ahead of time, flight attendants can move people around to prioritize family seating.
"We are confident that this process works well for families who choose to fly with American Airlines," read a statement to The Post.
The advocacy groups want the signatures and families' complaints to appeal directly to the airlines, which can make the policies more than just words on paper. Ultimately, airlines say they want the same. But, as with most other factors of air travel these days, the number of variables means issues get settled on a case-by-case basis.