It’s Ridiculous That Moms Aren’t Guaranteed to Sit with Their Kids on a Plane

flyingIt’s a situation no traveling family wants to face: You’re boarding an airplane with a child terrified of flying when it becomes evident that there are no empty seats left next to one another.

Your trembling little boy will have to fly without the comfort of your arm across his shoulders.

You might be shaking your head in disbelief right now. After all, even on the most crowded of flights, a solution could be found somehow, couldn’t it? Couldn’t just one compassionate passenger trade seats so that a parent and child could sit together?

That’s not what Kathryn Leehane says happened on a flight that the California mom took with her family. Leehane runs the humor blog Foxy Wine Pocket, but there was nothing funny about the piece she wrote for the website BluntMoms.com, recounting her recent experience on a packed airplane with unassigned seats.

“I looked around begging people with my eyes, but nobody budged,” Leehane wrote of her efforts to find a way to sit next to her frightened 8-year-old son Colin. “… They got there first. And they were comfortable. And apparently that was more important than helping a terrified child.”

Ultimately, after the flight attendant asked for volunteers to switch seats, one passenger did switch with Colin so that Colin and Leehane could at least sit across the aisle from each other, but the situation was still far from ideal. Leehane could only watch helplessly as her son would seize with fear at each unexpected movement of the plane.

In her piece, Leehane didn’t name the airline. I asked her why and she explained that she wanted “to focus on human behavior and compassion, not airline business practices. To focus on the responsibility we have as human beings to be kinder and gentler to each other.”

It’s a good focus to have and frankly, I’d like to call up every passenger on Leehane’s flight to find out exactly why they couldn’t help a mom out. Some of them, as Leehane herself noted, probably had valid excuses. I’m willing to bet that many did not — especially when you consider that Leehane’s flight was just 90 minutes long. I hazard to say that most adults could distract themselves from an imperfect seating situation with a book, magazine, or even some Sudoku for that paltry length of time.

But since I couldn’t call each passenger, I did make my focus airline business practices. I wanted to find out if airline policies enable them to pick up the slack when human decency falls short. I got in touch with three airlines  — Allegiant, Southwest and Spirit — that don’t automatically assign seats upon booking, since assigned seats early in the game might have prevented Leehane’s unfortunate experience.

Allegiant had the simplest solution. The airline allows customers to reserve specific seats ahead of time for an extra fee, but even parents who opt not to do that are still offered a measure of protection. The airline’s policy is that children under the age of 14 are guaranteed to be seated with at least one adult on their reservation. So if you have an aviophobic 16-year-old, you might be out of luck, but hey, it’s something.

At Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines, things aren’t set in stone. Like Allegiant, Spirit does allow flyers to reserve seats ahead of time for a fee while Southwest passengers can’t reserve seats early but can pay a fee to check in extra early (36 hours ahead of time instead of 24) to be assured an earlier boarding time and better seat availability.

Not willing or can’t afford to cough up an extra fee? Then things get tricky. A Southwest spokeswoman wrote in an email that if parents with children are boarding late, “flight attendants are notified, if time allows, and make every effort to hold seats for those passengers.”

Notice the “if time allows” clause — in other words, there’s no guarantee.

Both Southwest and Spirit say they’ll offer an incentive for passengers to switch seats to accommodate a family. Southwest will offer a complimentary drink while a Spirit spokesman said that, in rare instances, the airline will even offer a travel voucher.

But the Spirit spokesman, Paul Berry, added that “the vast majority of the time, 95 to 100 percent of the time, customers understand the situation and are willing to make a move without incentivizing.”

Leehane’s flight apparently fell into that estimated 5 percent of cases where incentives would have come in handy. But Leehane told me that flight attendants on her flight offered no incentives at all. Assuming her account is accurate, no matter what airline she was on, clearly somebody wasn’t following company policy.

But the grim reality of air travel today is that airlines really aren’t willing to move mountains — or, in this case, passengers — to accommodate families.

“Most travelers book their tickets based on price, followed by schedule,” Associated Press airlines reporter Scott Mayerowitz, a former colleague of mine at ABC News, told me. “This is especially true for families traveling together. There is no loyalty to one airline over another and airlines know this and are not going to out of their way to please a once-a-year traveler.”

So what’s the worried parent of a nervous flyer to do? Mayerowitz compiled a list of tips for families seeking to fly together (without paying extra fees) here. You may want to check it out before your next flight. Otherwise, you could take a chance on the kindness of strangers … but don’t say you weren’t warned.


Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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