What to do when you can’t sit together on a plane

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By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

It actually took intervention from a U.S. senator’s office before Shannon Cherry was guaranteed seats on a flight together with her two young autistic daughters.

Crazy, don’t you think?

“It was a trying experience to say the least,” said Cherry, who is from Albany, N.Y. She was headed to Britain to spend the holidays with her husband’s family.

Parents increasingly complain they can’t get seats next to their children — even 3 year olds — on packed flights. Those booking through online travel sites may not realize the seats are unassigned. (It is always wise to call an airline directly or check the airline’s site.)

But getting an assigned seat is no guarantee you’ll sit together, airlines switch aircraft and arbitrarily change seat assignments, often leaving it up to the passengers to negotiate a swap once on board.

“It makes the stress of traveling with kids even worse,” said Kelly Lewis, the mom of three young children who says it isn’t unusual for her children to be seated throughout the plane. “It’s a huge problem lately,” she said.

It’s a problem many families are bound to face as they head to crowded airports for holiday trips. To exacerbate the situation, many families flying this time of year don’t travel by air frequently, or at all, and are flummoxed from the time they get to the airport — from overweight bags (that will be $50, please…) to shepherding reluctant children through long security lines (I don’t want to let go of my blankie), tossing water bottles and emptying sippy cups along the way. And there’s the folding and unfolding of strollers with impatient business travelers behind them. (What do you mean I have to throw out the baby’s yoghurt?)

Now a parent already stressed and nervous (especially if it is a child’s first flight), may be faced with negotiating with strangers. (And, of course, by the time this occurs all the space in the overhead compartment is gone.) “You end up relying on the kindness of strangers,” Christy Grimste said in an email from Florida.

“I can’t remember the last time we sat on a plane as a family,” said Kim-Marie Evans, a family travel blogger and mom of four from suburban Connecticut. “I try to get as close to the 6 year old as I can and give the others electronics.”

You wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would want to sit next to someone else’s kindergartner or preschooler but parents say they are not always eager to switch if it means giving up an aisle or bulkhead seat. One man, Lewis added, only agreed to switch so she could sit next to her preschooler after the flight attendant offered to bump him up to first class.

Former flight attendant Heather Zorzini who now pens www.myflyingfingers.com, suggests families be as creative as they can. Offer to swap your good seat (if you have one). And don’t hesitate to ask the flight attendant for help. “We can’t force anyone to move, but sometimes we can offer small incentives to passengers who help us out,” she said.

That may mean a free drink for their generosity in moving to another seat, said Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines. That’s assuming the flight attendants and gate agents are willing to help. Parents say that isn’t always the case.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant suggested families should let airline personnel know the situation as soon as they get to the airport. He added that gate agents can rectify the problem by asking solo travelers to switch, for example.

Mainz noted that on Southwest, which has open seating, families may board at the end of the first group and before the second group, ensuring that in most cases at least one parent will be able to sit with each child. They can also pay $10 each for EarlyBird check-in, which automatically checks you in 24 hours in advance, ensuring an “A” boarding pass and better seat selection.

Other airlines say paying extra for the “preferred” seats improves your chances of getting seats together. American Airlines’ Tim Smith notes that these start at just $4 a segment, though they can cost significantly more. He adds that American, through a new automated process, will attempt to seat families with children 12 or under together.

Of course, once the kids are a little older, Zorzini says, sitting apart from their parents can add to their flight experience, making them feel grown-up. “If family members are across the aisle or in the row ahead or behind, that should be close enough to reduce stress levels on short-haul flights,” she said.

But that’s no consolation to families who really need to sit together and had followed the airline’s directives to make sure that happened. Shannon Cherry, for one, had booked the flights far in advance, locking in seats. She noted the girls’ disabilities on the record. Still, for no apparent reason, the airline changed the seats. “They didn’t notify us but each week we checked to make sure so when we were moved we knew about it.”

Cherry immediately contacted the airline — she asked me not to say which one — and was told she had no recourse until the family arrived at the gate — unacceptable given the girls’ autism and the likelihood of a full holiday flight. That was when she contacted her senator, whose office intervened. After a flurry of emails, the problem was resolved. “It’s the old squeaky wheel,” Cherry said.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Janina

    Ugh. It is really relying on the kindness of strangers. I bought a ticket for my three month old and reserved seats but when we checked in they had put the three month old and the not quite three year old together and my husband and I in single seats at the other end of the plane…. Fortunately the person sitting next to them was willing to switch, but my over active imagination was coming up with all sorts of creative ploys…

  2. Susan

    Even scarier, what do you know about that total stranger your child is being forced to sit next to? Are airlines advocating trusting children with total strangers that may not be trustworthy?

  3. Elisabeth

    I remember 25 years ago having reserved seating that was changed at check in for multiple legs of our flight to Hawaii. As a five year old then, I remember that the short leg of the flight was not so bad, sitting away from my mom (a couple of rows away, I could at least see her) but I would have had to sit between two large strange men had one of them not had a wife whom was seated next to my mom, six rows ahead. He graciously asked my mom if she wanted to switch. I was a brave kid but admittedly that was a little scary. On long flights I always slept on my mom and definitely needed her to keep me occupied without the electronic comforts we have today. If the airlines have not learned their lesson today, I am not sure they ever will.

  4. Jill

    Ridiculous. Last trip to see my parents in Hawaii from the east coast and I had booked seats, but was swapped out. Well WITH my two year old I said fine, you take care of her on a 10+ hour flight. I was pissed. The people voluntarily moved especially when I said “i’m also pregnant so having someone else care for my child will be wonderful. She can be a real screamer.”

    I fly a lot and recently airlines have been not seating us together even when I book our seats together.

  5. Tony McGann

    It’s a total scam for Airlines to make an extr $25 per person (Each way) on flights in Canada, if you want to guarantee seats. If I book 6 tickets on an airline, then I am pretty sure they don’t want passengers sitting next to my daughter who reguarly has flight sickness, nor my 4 year old who’ll not be too happy if he has to sit away from mom and dad. It’s a preposterous stance fo Airlines. I can understand it for adult flyers, but when I register 4 kids (under 10 years old) for flights, I expect any airline to use a little common sense.

  6. Tony McGann

    Or do the Airlines take full responsibility for the well being of my kids when they seat them all over their stupid planes?

  7. Bill

    What if its your child’s first flight would they allow them to sit with their parent? If it is just a Mom and son 6 or 7 years old will they separate them?

  8. D

    You want to sit together? Buy seats together. Otherwise don’t complain that you didn’t get what you didn’t pay for.

    It’s nobody’s problem to solve but yours, and having children doesn’t entitle you to demand that a stranger give up what they paid for.

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