US Airways charges family extra to sit together

by Christopher Elliott on December 28, 2011


When Molly Todd tried to secure seat assignments for a recent US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Cancun, Mexico, she made a disappointing discovery.

In order to sit next to her children, ages 7 and 10, she’d have to pay extra for her economy class seat.

“I was told I could have seats together if I paid for the choice seats, which cost $30 extra each,” says Todd, who co-owns a restaurant in Philadelphia. “I paid $4,000 for our tickets – and now this?”

Todd is just the latest in a series of worried parents who find themselves on the wrong side of the airline industry’s newest revenue-generating gimmick. This summer, American Airlines began charging for virtually every seat reservation on the plane, even if you’re in economy class.

Discount airlines such as Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines already charge for seat assignments, but no airline is more “iffy” than Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t even offer assigned seats.

The issue here isn’t whether the airlines should be charging for economy class seat reservations. The Transportation Department has already given them the green light to do it, and passengers, by buying the cheap airline tickets, have implicitly approved of it – even if they didn’t intend to.

No, the issue is, what’s a parent to do?

Well, I am a parent, and I’ve fielded numerous nervous calls from other parents during the last few months about their economy class seating arrangements.

“Do we have to pay?” they all ask.

Absolutely not.

Here’s what’s going on from the airline’s perspective: It wants to make as much extra money off you as possible. But its reservation systems are not optimized to keep traveling families together; they’re programmed mostly to squeeze more greenbacks out of their passengers.

Still, says US Airways, that doesn’t mean it wants to split families up.

“We do make every effort to seat families together while also being mindful as not to inconvenience customers with previously reserved seats,” US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder told me.

Here are the steps to ensuring your family can sit together in economy class.

• Get at the airport early. The sooner you’re at the gate, the sooner you can ask an airline agent to address your seating problem. At this stage of your trip, the employees are not as concerned with generating revenues as ensuring everyone has a good flight. If they see you pulling up to the counter with young children, they will do their darnedest to help.

• In the unlikely event you aren’t seated together, appeal to a flight attendant once you’ve boarded. Crewmembers know that families that aren’t seated together have the unique ability to make the entire cabin miserable, and will do their best to reseat you. Note that this might be a tougher pitch with teen-age children or if all family members are adults – but it’s still worth a try.

• If the flight attendants can’t or won’t help you, ask the person seated next to you if they’ll switch. As long as the “fasten seat belt” sign isn’t illuminated and you’re in the same class of service, you should be able to switch. If you have young children, the pitch is easy. I mean, who really wants to be seated next to an unaccompanied toddler for 11 hours?

It turns out Todd didn’t have to use any of these tips. When she arrived at the airport, a US Airways agent asked if he could seat a child next to an adult, in pairs.

“Later, he managed to put three of us together in one of the select rows that they had been trying to sell us,” she says. “We were very grateful for his help.”

What do you think? Should airlines exempt families from the “premium” seat charges in economy class?

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  • Matthew in NYC

    Not specifically, but I think that airline booking software should be designed to assume that people booking multiple seats on one reservation want adjacent seats. So that little pull down that asks how many, if you pull down two, it should look for two adjacent seats for you. Ticketmaster et al. can do this for theatrical performances whilst maximizing seat revenues, I don’t see why airlines can’t do it too. You want six seats together just behind first class, that $500 apiece, you want six seats together at the back, thats $300 apiece. I know that AA.com can already do different offerings depending on your elite status, this would be yet another way to lure travelers to book at an airline’s own website.

  • http://www.mitechtechnology.com/ Mitech Technology

    Hi buddy!! Because of this sharing I acknowledge good information about US airways. Thanks for these tips; I’ll use these next time when I’ll book tickets in US airways.

  • Adam1222

    Given the trope of this post, it is obvious what US AIrways should have done:  Selected four first class seats, removed the people who paid for them, and given them to our dear reader.  The first class passengers, especially if they used miles, should have been forced to serve as servants for dear reader who paid 4000 for 4 tickets on a route that rarely exceeds $700 per ticket. And then US Airways should have taken a beating at the hands of Chris Elliott. 

  • Anonymous

    I hate to be perverse .. but I suspect that if a seven-year-old child were seated next to an adult traveling alone, he or she might complain. People booking four seats (with sufficient advance notice) have every right to think and hope their family will be seated together. Wonder what repercussions there would be if the children were 3 or 4 years old.  

  • sophia

    Change to Delta …..they are the best,

  • Graham Harrison

    Many years ago I worked for a company that was a subsidiary of an airline and we had access to what they called staff travel on a standby basis.   Turned up for a 10 hour flight with boys aged 7 and 9 and was given 4 completely different seats.   Not even in the same sections of the 747.   Standing in the boarding q were debating who was going to sit where and someone in the q behind us heard and offered to swap for the seat we had upstairs (which was economy on this flight).   We accepted and that meant that we had the younger boy in the same cabin as one of us.   We took the older boy to his seat and the couple there had A and C with him in B and they readily moved (I don’t think we even asked; they just did it) to the middle and window leaving him in the aisle which meant we could go and visit him and he could come and visit us.   Something similar happened with the younger one (I think he ended up in the window).   They had travelled 7 hour flights before but not separated from us (although we had been 2 and 2).

    It’s about attitude.   We had briefed them on what might happen.   We had them well stocked with books etc.   We visited with them about once an hour just to check both they and the adults were OK.   Not everyone will take the same attitude we did but it worked for us.

  • Graham Harrison

    Many years ago I worked for a company that was a subsidiary of an airline and we had access to what they called staff travel on a standby basis.   Turned up for a 10 hour flight with boys aged 7 and 9 and was given 4 completely different seats.   Not even in the same sections of the 747.   Standing in the boarding q were debating who was going to sit where and someone in the q behind us heard and offered to swap for the seat we had upstairs (which was economy on this flight).   We accepted and that meant that we had the younger boy in the same cabin as one of us.   We took the older boy to his seat and the couple there had A and C with him in B and they readily moved (I don’t think we even asked; they just did it) to the middle and window leaving him in the aisle which meant we could go and visit him and he could come and visit us.   Something similar happened with the younger one (I think he ended up in the window).   They had travelled 7 hour flights before but not separated from us (although we had been 2 and 2).

    It’s about attitude.   We had briefed them on what might happen.   We had them well stocked with books etc.   We visited with them about once an hour just to check both they and the adults were OK.   Not everyone will take the same attitude we did but it worked for us.

  • Anonymous

    What would it cost the gate agent or FA to offer someone a free lunch or drink (gratis) on the airline if they give up their seat(s) to accomodate a family.  I for one will always accomodate families with young children (under age 10) to allow them to stay together and will not charge for the extra legroom seats.  It’s just common sense and being able to think out of the box.  Unfortunately there are airline employees who can’t or won’t do this.

  • Severnwatcher

    Agreed, and I don;t think – contrary to what they say when contacted by a consumer advocate – that they do try to seat all family members together, even if a toddler is involved. I was on several flights with my toddler when the flight attendants could have cared less if the 3 of us sat together, they found 2 seats and made us chose who sat nesxt to our son

  • Frank

    This is a huge issue, especially going to destinations with Honeymooners.  Think of the aircraft, three seats on one side, an aisle, and three seats on the other side.  Now, everyone books mostly as COUPLES.  Leaving the aisle seats vacant.  Try telling a honeymoon couple NO ONE wants to switch! 

    and, I beg to differ with the statement:  ask the person seated next to you if they’ll switch. As long as the “fasten seat belt” sign isn’t illuminated and you’re in the same class of service, you should be able to switch. 

    SHOULD?  I’m hearing, NO more often then, NO PROBLEM.

  • Frank

    interesting, you said, they could of cared less, YET, they helped and got you seats next to your child.  Maybe, just maybe this was the best alternative they could offer.  They’re inconveniencing other passengers, who booked in advance and

    got their seat assignments that THEY WANTED.  Care to ask a passenger, “care to sit in a CENTER SEAT for five hours?”  that’s certainly not fair to put another passenger in this situation because you didnt book seats in advance. 
    If this has happened on several flights, as YOU have said, maybe it’s YOU, not the flight attendants, who need to CARE MORE about how to book flights and seat assignments.

  • Frank

    lunch?  who offers food anymore?  It’s for sell and it’s not the employees to offer for FREE.  Free drinks?  Sure.  Works some of the time. 
    I dont place judgement on the person who doesnt want to switch, it’s their right.  Nor should you place judgement on an FA who cant make it work for you.  Cant force people to move.

  • Frank

    Great story.  I have one.  I watched a Jamaican Mother board the aircraft with, what looked like 6 kids.  All under the age of 10.  She patiently placed all the kids in separate seats and sternly told them to “sit”.  A few passengers moved on their own, several asked me where their mother was and a few actually enjoyed their flight sitting next toa well behaved child.

  • Frank

    I was traveling in uniform the other day and the airline agent put me in the emergency exit row.  As passengers were boarding, a business man looks at me as he’s placing his bags in the overhead and comments, “why do airline workers get the best seats?”

    I smiled and said, “this seat was available.  You could of purchased it.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    Did Santa miss your house, Adam?
    Still……..$4000 bucks for three economy seats?This must have been right at the holidays. Maybe last minute?The business of the country is business. Anyone who is going to Cancun for Christmas (or not Christmas) and pays that much for economy seats….I dunnoh…..Gotta think there’s more to this story…..

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    Karen, You make the trip across the pond frequently, right? Any idea how the euro airlines handle this? Aside from the fact that most French and UK kids i’ve met  behave better in public than many American kids i know. 
    I think the ‘advance notice’ part might be the thorny issue here.

  • Travelwithnina

    Tip, book thru a travel agent and pay their fee. Agents can hold seats and check availibility of seats together. You can then rest assured seats are together. If you are too cheap too that, then buy your tickets from the airlines,purchase immediately, and then look for seats. If no seats are available call the airline and get a supervisor to help. Remember tickets can be cancelled within 24 hours. So do it promptly.

  • Gene

    If a single patron asked to be seated at a prime table for 8 at Ms Todd’s restaurant would she graciously seat them there.  Think not.  One should be prepared to book early or pay the extra few dollars required by the airline.
    I have paid for a first class and selected the seat I wanted months before the flight.  No longer feel guilty when someone ask me to change for their comfort.

  • jeffrysdad

    If I have paid extra for a special seat, I probably would not change unless I was getting a similar or “better” seat.  Yes, I know families want to travel together and I feel badly for them.  But if I have already paid that $10 – $100 for extra legroom or to be in the front of the plane, I’m not going to change to a middle seat to accomodated a family that could just as easily have paid the same.  If they can afford $4000 for plane ticketickets, they cna afford another $120 to upgrade to sit together.

  • Elle Emme

    My father works for the airlines, and my family would make frequent use of his flight benefits. My little sister and I learned from a very young age how to behave on a plane, especially if we were seated away from our parents – which happened more often than not since we were flying non-rev. Mom always made sure we had a backpack full of books, activity books, snacks like granola bars, extra batteries for our Walkman and Gameboy, a sweater and a stuffed animal. She would write our seat number and her seat number on our hands, and show us where the bathrooms were and make sure we had a barf bag in the seatback pocket in case we got sick. She set expectations – we knew we could get up and see her if we needed to, but we had to sit in our seats and be good and not bother the people next to us or the flight attendants.

    I don’t recall my parents ever asking other passengers or flight crew to move so we could sit by them. It was probably because we were non-revs, and just grateful to get on the plane, so we didn’t want to rock the boat.

    Posts like this are puzzling to me. If you’re flying an airline that requires you to pay to get guaranteed seats together, you either pay or else take your chances that you don’t get seated together (or fly an airline that doesn’t require you to pay). If you take your chances, then by all means ask the airline staff or flight crew or other passengers if they would be willing to accommodate your family, but don’t expect them to say yes and set expectations with your kids beforehand that they may not be sitting with you.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t children this age fly as unaccompanied minors all the time on airlines? If they can fly unaccompanied, why is it such a problem if they fly elsewhere in the plane than with a parent? And since when is a 7 year old a toddler? And why does it take 11 hours to fly to Cancun from Philadelphia? I just can’t summon the outrage out of all of this. If it really matters to fly together, pay extra or reserve early.

  • Jim P.

    $30 is less than one per cent of the total airfare.  Seems the easiest thing, and what I would have done, is pay the silly fee and book the seats you want when you make the reservation.

    It is not as though the airline made up this charge on the spot.

    That being said, I do beleive it is not unreasonable for an airline to accommodate a parent and children to permit them to fly seated together, even if it costs the airline a minor pittance in an uncollected “premium” seat. (I am presuming an aisle or window is now “premium” on this airline.  I must add that I’d almost prefer walking to flying U.S. Air, I consider them only slightly better than flying third class on a Soviet era Russian train.)

    There is a blanace between reasonable accommodation and whining people, for thr cos tinvolved, the parent should have just dealt with it beforehand but I do feel the airline needs to step up more when this happens also.

  • Scott

    Obviously, at that price, they did not purchase with sufficient advance notice.

  • Scott

    Gate agents I know routinely work their a$$es off to get families together.  This is a HOLIDAY flight.  No business travelers, and EVERYONE is traveling with kids.  Very few parties are eligible to sit in the emergency exit rows.  You just cannot always find seats together for parties of 3, 4 and 5 because the people who bought their tickets EARLY already have those seats assigned!  Sometimes, you just have to deal with it because everyone is in the same boat.

  • Txpatriot

    Make them all pay.   If you exempt them, then they’ll charge me DOUBLE.

  • txpatriot

    Actually, I forgot.  I’m not flying until TSA implements a policy of changing blue gloves between handling passengers genitals.

  • Severnwatcher

    Frank, we booked in advance as well, and the last seating chart I saw for one of the flight had us in adjacent seats, for some reason it was when we got to the airpor that it got jumbled.  And these were not discount seats, so I fail to see why it is unreasonable for me to expect to sit together…

  • Severnwatcher

    I should add, Frank, that as you likely know, I sometimes write for this site. I’m not a novice at booking. (And to answer someone else, I’ve never been on an international flight where they would have considered seating us apart). But to return to our domestic airlines, I have ALWAYS found fellow passengers to be more acommodating and easier to deal with when trying to reconfigure seating arangements than flight attendants, its like they can’t be bothered. That;’s why, as Chris suggests, you should address it at the gate, I have found gate attendants to be very helpful with this.

  • Adam1222

    And if its last minute, they shouldnt assume they can all sit together.

  • Adam1222

    If you think coach seat assignments have anything to do with whether you paid “discount” or not, you are hardly an expert.  Coach is coach. 

  • Anonymous

    Did you monitor your reservation?  Was there an aircraft change? No seat is guaranteed, but one carrier will put you in their elite section if your seats get reassigned and they have seats available.

  • IronButt

    This is another example of lack of personal responsibility. When I have to travel I make it a point to get seat assignments early so I get the seat I want. I research the seats on Seatguru and am picky. So, when someone who obviously booked at the last moment storms on the plane with 3 kids in tow and wants to switch my aisle seat for a middle seat so they can be near the little darlings I say no. I have given up a hard won Business Class seat to a soldier returning from the Middle East but I’ll be darned if I will give up a seat because someone decided to take a flight at the last moment and expect everyone to “be considerate” and accommodation them and their brood. Ain’t happening.

  • DCTA

    I used to say to clients traveling with young kids when we couldn’t seat them together (last minute booking), “Okay, so walk little Johnny to his seat and then say to him clearly and loudly – ‘now Johnny, this nice man will be here to help you with anything on the flight.  Mommy is just sitting 15 rows back there.”  Believe me, the “nice man” was always thrilled to swap seats.

    But on a more reasonable level – I find that if I don’t have a seat assignment for myself and if I watch the seat availability in the premium seats – as long as a lot of them are open I don’t go ahead and purchase one.  Chances are I will be assigned into one at the gate anyway.

  • Frank

    on several flights?  sounds strange.  you should of confirmed your seats before flying if they were that important to you.  Confirm would of taken all of 2 minutes.

  • Gigi

    Families struggled enough to come up w/ huge plane fare just to be w/ the rest of their families on the other side of the world so really another $120.00 pp for being seated together is ridiculous. The airlines can manipulate this charges because of people like you who is willing to pay for something that should have been free and just be on the basis of first come first served.

  • Frank

    like they cant be bothered????  NO, it’s like we’re put into a situation that usually doesnt please someone.  example:  YOU.  You were accomodated by the crew.  You simply had

    the expectation of all three of you sitting together.  Something the F/A’s cant always work out for you.  In other words, they did the best they could.  I CANT force people to move, and I disagree with your statement, I say domestic passengers are more apt to say, NO. 

  • Chasmosaur

    This is posted on Elliott.org, and over there, people have pointed out that many parents are asking (and not necessarily in a particularly polite or thankful manner) that people vacate aisle or window seats for middle seats.  Occasionally they even want someone to remove themselves from a United Economy “Plus” seat to go sit in a standard Economy seat.

    If I can swap an aisle for an aisle or an E+ for an E+, fine.  I don’t really want to be sitting next to a child that may be upset because a parent isn’t around (or to have a parent hanging over me to tend to their child).  But I have very long legs and chronic joint disease and some lingering whiplash issues – if I haven’t gotten an upgrade to E+ or even first class, I need that aisle, even on short flights.
    And it’s easy to say “book early and choose early”.  My husband and I just got back from our Christmas trip using Delta, where he is a Gold Medallion member. (Flying out of MSP on a regular basis, it’s pretty much our default airline if we want any sort of variety in our flights.)  We specifically chose to leave a middle seat between us, as he loves window seats and as I noted above, I need an aisle.When we went to check in online 24 hours before?  They had changed our row by 2 and placed me in the middle seat. There wasn’t even a change in equipment from what we could tell, as my husband has taken that particular flight before several times. No warning e-mails, just “Oh, we changed your seat, so go ahead and print out your boarding pass.” Perversely, I think they were probably trying to sit us together, even though the frequent flyer number attached to my ticket states I like aisles.Luckily, we were early enough (and high-status enough) that I took an aisle seat a few rows forward.  But if Delta is tinkering with an elite status member’s booking without warning, do you think they don’t do the same with non-elite members?

    I don’t know if that’s the case here – part of me thinks that Ms. Todd may have booked late, in which case, she was left with the E+ seats if she wanted to sit together – but I was thinking this week that if an airline committed to charging $X for seats on a plane where there was enough leg room for everyone, then problems like this would be less problematic.  If people don’t feel like they are going to be wedged into a middle seat, maybe passengers might be more sympathetic to the ways airlines rearrange seat assignments.

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  • Bdslack

    We are trying to check in with Delta for a trip from IND to Hawaii and guess what? We can’t sit together for the entire flight. Unless we want to pay $30 each for each leg of the trip. But the guy on the phone did have enough time on his hands to try and sell me on a car rental and a credit card. 

    Thanks Delta – you have kicked off our vacation in a great way. I hope HOPE you go out of business. 

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