Separated from kids on flights: Why it happens and how parents can avoid it

Can you imagine sitting separately from your 3-year-old on an eight-hour flight?!
Courtesy of Lauren Adamczyk

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By Mary Pflum

Holiday travel season is here. And for families with small children, it's the season to stress about sitting together on flights.

Lauren Adamczyk, a mom of four from Milford, Michigan, knows the struggle is real.

Last Thanksgiving, Adamczyk was flying with her children on Delta Airlines from Atlanta to Detroit when she was stunned to learn the airline had not seated her with her 4-, 6- and 11-year-old children.

“The basic fare economy was a new thing at that time,” Adamczyk said. “We didn’t know that the fare we purchased meant that we wouldn’t be assigned seats until the last minute and that the airline wouldn’t make keeping our family together a priority.”

Adamczyk said Delta gate agents told her that it would be up to her to work out a seat swap with fellow passengers. Because Adamczyk’s seat was located in the back of the plane, passengers were reluctant to switch.

“I was in tears. My kids were in tears,” Adamczyk said.

After a stressful round of negotiations, Adamczyk was able to sit with her 4-year-old on the flight and within eye sight of her 6-year-old, who sat in a different row. But Adamczyk’s 11-year-old daughter was seated several rows away, where Adamczyk could neither see nor hear her.

“It’s not fair to do that to parents,” Adamczyk said. “Parents who buy tickets with their children should be able to sit with their children.”

In a statement to TODAY Parents, a Delta spokesperson wrote, “Delta works with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their travel needs are met when they fly with us.”

Didn't Congress take action? Well yes, but...

Adamczyk’s story is not unique.

With more airlines charging passengers extra fees to choose seats or for the ability to board early, parents are increasingly finding it a challenge to sit with young children without paying premium fees, or without doing some wheeling and dealing with airline agents and fellow passengers.

“Families struggling to find seats together on flights is definitely a topic I’ve gotten to know all too well,” said Rainer Jenss, president of the Family Travel Association, an organization that promotes family travel. “I get calls from families all over the nation, telling me about being separated from their children on flights. I received a call from a mother who was separated on a flight from her 4-year-old autistic child.”

In 2016, Congress attempted to address the problem with an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, called the Families Flying Together Act. The amendment stated that airlines should seat any child under the age of 13 “adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13, to the maximum extent practicable, at no additional cost.”

But getting seats together on flights remains a challenge for many families, said Summer Hull, director of family travel for The Points Guy, a travel website.

“The act never got any heat behind it for enforcement,” Hull said.

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TODAY Parents reached out to the Department of Transportation for comment about the status of the Families Flying Together Act.

A DOT spokesperson said the DOT has looked into family seating challenges, but found “airlines receive very few family seating complaints (less than 1% of consumer complaints involve family seating). The number of family seating complaints filed directly with the airlines is a similarly small percentage of the total complaints they receive.”

The best airlines for families flying together

Hull said some airlines are better than others at keeping families together, notably Southwest, which does not have pre-assigned seating and allows families to board early so that they can select their seats together.

But now that a majority of airlines are routinely charging extra fees for passengers for the ability to pre-select seats, weeks in advance, Hull said there’s an implied expectation for parents to pay premium prices to guarantee they will sit with young children.

“There’s no doubt that airlines make a ton of money on these seats. They make a lot of their revenue from these fees. Airlines don’t want to see families seated away from their 2-year-old — but they would all love for you to pay more to sit with your kid,” Hull said.

Even when families pay extra fees to pre-select seats, things can go wrong.

That was the case for Rishaan Chandra, of Fairfax, Virginia. He and his wife flew with their toddler from the U.S. to New Delhi in 2017, connecting through Amsterdam. “We paid extra to be seated with our three-year-old son,” Chandra said.

The tickets were purchased through United Airlines, but the Amsterdam to New Delhi leg of the flight was flown by a United partner, Lufthansa. Due to a glitch in the system, Chandra’s son was assigned to a seat several aisles away from both parents.

“None of the passengers were willing to change seats and the flight attendants said there was nothing they could do,” Chandra said. The family said that they were told there was no choice other than to have their three-year-old sit through the eight-hour flight, away from his parents.

“The good news is that my son was OK,” said Chandra. “The people seated around him were nice. But I was worried about leaving my 3-year-old son in a row with strangers. He could have put anything in his mouth, choked on food on the flight. If a kid as young as 3 is on an eight-hour flight, a parent needs to be there.”

United offered Chandra a flight voucher for his family’s inconvenience. But Chandra says he’s not interested in travel vouchers. “I sent the voucher back to them and told them to use the money to retrain their staff. It was an eight hour flight of worry,” he said.

Adamczyk said after last Thanksgiving’s flight ordeal, she’s changed her strategy. Now she pays extra to ensure that she and her kids are seated together. Adamczyk recognizes that not all families can afford to pay to pick seats and said she doesn’t think parents sitting with children should be considered a luxury.

“Since when do airlines think that it’s more important to make money off of seat sales than for a child to be safe?” she asked.

Tips for sitting together as a family

Want to ensure that you’re seated with your children on upcoming flights? The Family Travel Association and The Points Guy offer these travel tips:

Book early

Booking weeks, even months, in advance ensures that you’ll have the best pick of seats on an aircraft, says Hull and her Points Guy team. Some airlines like Alaska Airlines, said Hull, allow low-fare seats to be purchased with the option of picking seats at no extra cost. But, she said, that option is available for only a select number of seats, which need to be booked early.

Consider using a travel agent

Jenss said he recognizes many travelers choose to book flights online, through discount travel sites. But he encourages families to consider booking trips through a travel agent, who can place calls on a family’s behalf and ensure that a family with small children is seated together. “A good travel agent is another ally to have on your side,” Jenss said. “The good ones have relationships with the airlines and know who to call to get you a better seat.”

Beware of basic economy fares

Low-fare seats are typically the lowest on the airlines’ pecking order when it comes to seat selection. “If you want to ensure that you’re seated together, consider booking a higher fare that allows you to pick and lock in your seats,” said Jenss.

Call the airline before getting to the airport

“Be wary of airlines that tell you to resolve the situation at the gate,” said Jenss. “You’ve got to advocate early.” Jenss and Hull both recommend calling the airline before the departure date to iron out seating issues that may arise.

Get to the airport early

If you haven’t managed to work out seating issues prior to your flight date, Hull said it’s key to get to the airport early and to come armed with a smile. “Pack a good attitude and be friendly and confident,” she said. Speak directly with airline agents to remedy the situation before arriving at the gate. Hull said even if you can’t book seats together, booking some seats, particularly window and aisle seats, is better than nothing. “Those seats provide better trading opportunities once you’re on the plane.”

Write a written complaint if separated

The situation for families trying to fly together with small children is not going to get better any time soon, unless families that are separated on flights speak up. If your family has been separated, you can file a formal complaint with the airline and with the DOT. The DOT welcomes feedback from families facing separation issues.

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