Airline seat fees separate mom from five-year-old twins

by Christopher Elliott on December 14, 2012


Ever since airlines added new economy-class seat reservation fees, they’ve insisted that the new charges would not lead to families with young kids being separated.

And I believed it — until I heard from Vicki Wallace.

Wallace was flying from Philadelphia to San Diego on US Airways recently when the fees led to her being separated from her five-year-old twins, she says.

Her case is important because airlines have insisted they aren’t forcing their customers to book these “choice” seats for their kids, and that they’ll do everything in their power to make sure families with young children are seated together on a flight, whether they paid more for their seat reservations or not.

It all began when Wallace started planning the trip to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.

“I reserved my seats ahead of time and was peeved to find I had to pay $67 for a “choice” seat in order to pick four adjacent seats for my family.

Okay, not too big a deal. However, when I checked in the night before, I found that my ‘choice’ seat was worthless, since they moved the other three seats all over the plane – all separated from one another.”

Eventually, she remedied the situation by paying more to reserve better “choice” seats. But it came at a price: Wallace says she paid $112 extra for the initial reservations and then another $180 after her “choice” seats were reshuffled. That’s on top of her $675 airfare.

But the real seat problems happened on her return flight. “The flight was full, so there was no option to even purchase adjacent seats,” she says.

The family was separated — one member was sent to row 35 and the others were in rows 8 and 9.

“I asked the agents at the gate about getting seats together and they told me they could not help and to ask the flight attendants,” she says. “Of course, once on the plane, the flight attendants were of no help and we were told to ask passengers to swap seats.”

She continues,

“My husband disappeared to his seat in row 35 while I hovered around rows 8 and 9 and reached out to passengers to swap seats.

One was an even swap for one aisle seat to another aisle seat, so that was easy. Another woman was not willing at all to move over one seat so we could be adjacent and another by the window was not initially willing, but later changed her mind as I sent the one five-year-old to her seat between two strangers.”

So, to recap, Wallace paid the “choice” seat fee on her outbound leg, but the airline moved her seats anyway, forcing her to pay even more in order to sit with her family. Then, on the return, it didn’t offer her any “choice” seat options and separated the entire family again. And for at least a short amount of time, one of her five-year-old twins sat between two strangers.

Wallace thinks the airline seat fees are out of control.

“I am outraged that I can no longer expect to sit with my young children on a flight anymore,” she says. “We travel from one coast to the next at least three times a year. It is already expensive. Is there any way you could help me get either a refund for the extra fees — especially the ‘choice’ seats I never used?”

Of course.

I asked US Airways to review her case. Here’s what a representative said:

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We got with the customer … gave her some tips on how to book together, and offered a refund of her choice seat fees — which she accepted.

As you know, we work really hard to accommodate families traveling together — whether with small kids or not — and the vast majority of the time it works out just fine. Then we can always try at the gate with no-shows or with other volunteers … lastly, on the aircraft itself.

I’m happy this was resolved, but I’m troubled that this case even came to my attention. Airlines have long insisted that they won’t separate families, and that there’s no need for the government to regulate their seating policies. I’ve agreed with this position, citing a lack of evidence that young kids are being separated from their parents on planes.

Wallace’s case makes me wonder if I’m on the right side of this argument.

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  • Another Pax

    So let me get this straight: “Another woman was not willing at all to move over one seat so we could be adjacent and another by the window was not initially willing, ” two passengers who PAID for the premium seats were expected by this lady to move to middle seats?

  • Johnp

    To “Another Pax” You are “assuming” that the mother “expected” any passenger, premium set or not, to move. She asked and obviously was hopeful of a positive response. Were you the the passenger who would NEVER move for any other passenger’s need?

  • Bill

    in this particular case, from what was written, it appears the pax did everything in advance to get her family together – i dont fly US Airways enough to know if they hold seats until the gate for situations like this, but they should – it doesnt hurt to hold back the last row or two of the plane to be assigned at the airport. it also appears that there was an aircraft swap and i am glad US refunded the fees.
    what gets me is pax who dont plan ahead, book the cheapest flight instead of paying more for a different time when they can get seats together. i know there are aircraft swaps, but the majority of flights arent that way. and parents feel they are “entitled” to make others move to accomodate them. and then they become downright rude when people dont move.
    i will NOT give up my bulkhead aisle seat in economy plus to take an economy minus middle seat in the back of the plane. i planned ahead. furthermore, if i had paid $49 – $79 for that seat, i definitely would not be giving it up unless the person was prepared to refund me the money on the spot.
    airlines have gone to seat fees to make money – airfares have not significantly increased in years – airlines can continue to run at a loss. if you have young children who must sit next to you, book far enough in advance

  • Another Pax

    Yup. I have my reasons for picking that aisle or window seat. I book far enough ahead and choose that seat – be it for seat power, access to the restroom, whatever… and those reasons are sufficient for me.

  • mtaabq

    I’m with Bill on this one. If you want “no extra fee” seats together you’re gonna have to plan well in advance and sometimes you’re simply gonna have to pay the premium to sit together. I’ll admit US bungled this one and I’m glad she got a refund, which, based upon what I read, she deserved.

  • TonysTravel

    Another example of greed. The airlines prime goal is profit, not family travel because that’s a daily/ real challange in flying. However, there’s one exception I’m aware of……Southwest……they even allow pre-boaeding for families with young children.

  • Anonymous

    I have joint injury and disease. The two times I swapped seats and moved to an aisle in this situation, I completely regretted it. I ended up in the back of the plane, in a middle seat, between seat hogs. My joints were screaming at me by the time I got off the plane, and ended up spending the first day at my destination communing with a heating pad. I need to be on the aisle so I can discreetly stretch my leg in the aisle (when no one is around), even on a short flight, if I’m in economy.

    The second time was the one I swore when I would never do it again. Because the mother who begged and pleaded ended up walking up and down the aisle with her child for most of the flight.

    Sometimes, people on the aisle do book it for a particular reason. In a reasonable world, people should get the seats they booked – you can’t start blaming the people who were lucky enough not to be reshuffled.

  • James Penrose

    “And I believed it…” Why? Airlines lie as often as the sun comes up and U.S. Airways seems to be notorious for poor customer service even to the point of ignoring requests for handicapped early boarding. (Personal experience)

    Flight attendants have essentially absolute power over passengers, so the purser or whatever US Airways calls them could have arranged this if he or she actually gave a ****.

    I’ll admit that I’m not about to turn an aisle or window seat into a center seat for someone else’s convenience as a rule but I’d almost certainly swap like for like if asked nicely.

    Only time I ever flew US Airwyas, they did something like this to a family that boarded at the last minute due to some connection issue. Apparently their seats had already been given up by the system even though the connecting flight was coming in from Italy and was known to be running late. The flight was delayed almost half an hour while the attendants ran around as though this was the first time in airline history this sort of thing had occurred and the family was scattered all over the plane.

    One more reason I never fly US Airways by choice.

  • janice

    If she paid for choice seats she should have gotten them. And US Airways messed up. On the return though, if there weren’t even choice seat together then I hate to say it but she should have chosen another flight. It’s not like there is only one flight a day between the cities. (And Southwest flies that route) My husband had a woman once who got a free upgrade to economy plus with her kids trying to guilt trip into a middle seat in back for a flight to London, so HER mother could sit up front with them….And I hear those stories all the time.

  • Sasha

    I sounds to me like this parent purchased 1 choice seat and then expected 3 more? I don’t understand this thinking. If I misunderstood please explain.

  • Skeptic

    This story doesn’t provide enough details for me to tell what really happened, but it sounds like the woman waited too late to start to try to fix a seating problem on FLIGHTS OVER THANKSGIVING. And I’ve never understood exactly what the airlines mean when they say they won’t let their seat fees result in seating young children far from their parents, because meanwhile those same airlines are letting other customers either pay for or use their elite status to get preferred seats. None of the other pax are choosing middle seats in the back unless they are in a group. So a parent trying to make or fix seating issues at the last minute on the busiest travel days of the year is going to be SOL.

    It had to have been pretty clear to anyone who flies at least three coast-to-coast RT/year that a single $67 seat fee applied only to that seat, not three others. And any airline I’ve flown on for the past 7-8 years has a seating map that only lets you reserve seats you’re either entitled to as an elite or that you’ve paid extra for. If the mom here didn’t see three other adjacent seats showing as reserved by her on both flights after she paid the initial, single upgrade fee, why would she expect them to materialize out of thin air on what were likely overbooked flights?

    And how is this any other passenger’s problem to fix, or even to feel guilty about? If I come across someone changing her kid’s diaper in an airport bathroom, and the mom is upset because she realizes she doesn’t have enough diapers for the trip, I don’t feel personally responsible for fixing the situation. I don’t rush out past security or off to another concourse to find more diapers. And I’d feel even less responsible if the parent had been told by an airline that they would supply her kids’ needs.

    In order for me to take the airlines’ platitudinous policy about this situation seriously, the FAs, not the hopeful passenger, should have to be the ones to make the announcement “Are there any passengers who are willing to change seats so this family can sit together?” If no one volunteers, end of story. Other pax shouldn’t have to be solicited in public, put on the spot to fix someone else’s failure to plan (including the airline’s failure). And anyone who does switch should be refunded their upgrade fees, or given some extra mileage credit.

  • Skeptic

    You don’t need a reason. You don’t need to share the details of your physical needs with the rest of the world in order to “trump” the parent’s need. You planned ahead, jumped through all the hoops, and got your preferred seat. It is the AIRLINE’s responsibility, not yours, to make good on the airline’s published policy regarding seat fees and small children.

  • Anonymous

    I know that. I’ve just wearied of hearing how I’m a horrible person for not giving the seat up. I feel bad for the families, but I’m more tired of the fact I actually have to be made into a bad guy because the airlines can’t do more to keep parties together during equipment change or charge fees for everything and anything that can be monetized. I also weary of hearing this argument being all about separating a parent from their young children. NO ONE should be separated from their party if it is preventable. It’s ridiculous.

    The airlines need to get their act together from start to finish. I feel bad for the FA’s who have to deal with this, and am mystified as to why GA’s can’t take care of this before everyone is shoved into a metal tube and tempers get high.

  • Matt F.

    I just finished a flight from PHX to HNL and it was the worst. I only had my wife and I to worry about. We couldn’t get anyone to move to allow us to sit together. Not a big deal, but I guess you have to realize people have paid for their seats and won’t give them up. But I can only tell you we saw families separated. My wife had two teenagers together next to her and when meals were passed, the kids didn’t have a card or money to pay, and their dad was 20 rows back and the attendant told them to wait until they finished and then they could go get money from their parents if they still wanted the meal. Go figure. What a mess.
    And US Air doesn’t help you out either. Believe me. They are only in it for the money and revenue on the seats. It is a sad day for air travel.

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