Airline Seats 4-Year-Old Far From Dad, Charges $88 to Switch

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Blogger Frank Strong says Delta seated his 4-year-old daughter 11 rows away from him on a flight at the end of April. (Photo: Frank Strong)

The father of a 4-year-old is calling for airlines to change their policies after Delta assigned him a seat 11 rows away from his daughter on a recent flight.

Frank Strong was traveling from Raleigh, NC, to Montgomery, Ala., with a connection through Atlanta, in late April to take his daughter to visit her grandmother. “I’m a co-parent, so I don’t have my daughter all the time, but when I do I’m effectively a single dad,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. So, of course, when he booked his flight he hoped to sit with his daughter, whose name he chose not to reveal to Yahoo Parenting. “One of the first pieces of information they asked me was her age, but when I was given the option to select seats, there were no seats together. I couldn’t even pay them for us to sit together.”

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So Strong decided not to choose seats, hoping he could get them two adjacent seats when he got to the airport. After checking in online, and then again at the ticketing kiosk, Strong says he was still unable to secure a seat next to his daughter, so he approached the ticketing counter. “The gate agents exchanged knowing glances – they obviously had seen this before – and suggested I go to the gate. They said maybe they could fix the problem for me for free, otherwise I could pay $88 to get our seats together right away,” he says. “I did that, because I didn’t want to have to worry about what might happen at the gate.”

After $1,200 for tickets, and another $88 for seat changes, Strong boarded the plane only to see that there were plenty of empty seats. “This never should have happened in the first place,” he wrote last week in a blog post about the incident. “No parent holds a higher responsibility — or more deeply visceral instinct — than keeping their child or children safe. That’s hard to accomplish 11 rows away when the fasten seat belt sign is glowing.”

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Delta told Yahoo Parenting they are still investigating Strong’s complaint. “We strive to ensure that every customer has a great experience with Delta,” said a Delta spokesperson. “We are investigating the situation.”

Strong says airlines need to examine policies regarding air travelers who might need to sit together, like parents and toddlers, or families traveling with individuals with disabilities. “They should be doing everything they can to put those folks together, why don’t they?” he says. “They knew my daughter’s age as soon as I started booking my ticket. I’ve got to believe the airline has the sophistication and technology to make [seating us together] work if they so choose. Why would you separate a parent and toddler?”

For more profit, is Strong’s guess. “Like any business, they are trying to make money and I understand that — if they don’t they will go out of business,” he says. “But I think this borders on taking advantage of your customer base and that’s what concerns me. As a traveling parent, I don’t have any real options.”

While Strong still hasn’t heard from the airline, he says he’s not expecting any personal compensation. “I’m not looking for freebies or anything,” he says. “I’d like them to think about their policies and make it easier for parents to travel with young children.”

On Twitter, Strong says he got a lot of support from parents who’ve encountered similar difficulty, but also feedback from some followers who suggested he should have simply asked the passenger originally seated next to his daughter to move. “I’m sure they would have,” he says. “But why is the problem resolution outsourced to the passenger? This is a problem for the airline.”

He also noted, in his blog post, that he has encountered similar problems with US Airways and American. “My mother flew for American for some 30 years and when I relayed the story, she shook her head and noted the airline made it a habit throughout her career,” he wrote.  

In a Yahoo Travel article about this very phenomenon, writer George Hobica notes that separating parent and child is not unusual on a flight. “Many U.S.-based airlines hold back a large number of ‘standard’ economy seats even if the flight is half empty. They do this in part to accommodate their best customers (if you have status in a frequent flyer program, you can usually get first crack at those coveted aisle seats) and in part to earn extra revenue from people willing to pay for the extra legroom seats at the front of economy class, or to pay for any seat assignment at all,” he writes. “On some heavily trafficked flights, if you book close to departure you might only find scattered single seats available in the ‘regular economy’ section, but lots of seats in the ‘plus’ section for an upcharge that can cost $50 or more each way. Even if you book far ahead, even if the flight isn’t sold out, only middle seats or premium seats are shown as available.”

Hobica raises the same concerns as Strong. “What about someone traveling with an autistic adult, or with an older passenger suffering from dementia?” he writes. “Caregivers absolutely need to be in close proximity with their charges when they fly together. No 3-year-old or special-needs adult is going to enjoy a flight sitting alone between two strangers (the two strangers won’t enjoy it either).”

To save themselves frustration — and money — Hobica suggests that parents book flights far in advance, speak to the airlines directly, get to the airport early to appeal to a check-in agent, or change flights or airlines. That’s what Strong plans to do in the future. “I will be a lot more careful the next time and might be willing to go with an aircraft carrier that charges a little more if they will allow me to pick a seat with my daughter,” he says.

Hobica’s other suggestion? Enter the child’s age when booking. “One major airline told me that if a child is 12 or younger its computer system will automatically attempt to pair an accompanying adult in an adjacent seat the day before departure,” he writes.

That airline, presumably, was not Delta.

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