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Do airlines hate families?

Do airlines hate families?

(Getty Images)

Do airlines hate families? You might think so. After paying sky-high airfares, some parents and children find themselves seated apart on the plane and scrounging for bin space after being shut out of early boarding.

Elizabeth Allen Rittmeyer of Ojai, Calif., co-owner of a letterpress company, said she used to fly back East twice a year with her husband and 12-year-old daughter. Discouraged by high fares, they’ve cut back to once a year.

Clare Bronowski, a real estate lawyer from Venice, Calif., said scoring adjacent seats with her husband and two teen-age daughters is hit or miss.

 “In the past couple of years, the airlines just say, ‘Once you are on the flight, you can ask someone next to you if they will move,’” she said. “Of course, that never works.” 

It’s gotten so bad that U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y) on July 12 introduced legislation to help families sit together on planes.

Noting that many carriers charge extra for aisle and window spots, Nadler said, “Families should not be stuck paying hidden fees, or buying ‘premium’ seats, simply because they wish to be seated together on crowded flights.” 

Not everyone has unhappy experiences.

Linda Kaplan, a New York publishing executive who flies with her husband and their 6-year-old twin daughters, said she hasn’t had a problem finding seats together. “People have been accommodating, “ she said.

Carriers say they don’t hate families, and in fact, try to help them.

“Airlines have always worked cooperatively with their customers to seat parties, including those traveling with children, together,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group. Airport staff and cabin crews sometimes arrange last-minute seat switches.

But overall, four trends are conspiring to make the skies less friendly to families this summer: skyrocketing fares, packed planes, seat fees and later boarding.

1. Skyrocketing fares

Forced to limit their travel to summer when kids are out of school and prices peak, “families are cash cows for airlines,” said Susan D. Tanzman, president of Martin's Travel and Tours in Los Angeles. She said she’s seeing round trips between Hawaii and the mainland top $1,000 in July and August and then drop to $600 after school starts.

Already, through May this year, domestic fares were up more than 6% over the same period last year after rising 18% from 2009 to 2011, industry statistics show. On the other hand, when adjusted for inflation, fares are actually lower than they were a dozen years ago.

Feel better?

2. Packed planes

Domestic flights last year took off fuller than ever. March this year set a record for the month–more than 84% of seats filled–as carriers continued their quest to maximize revenue by minimizing unsold seats. If past patterns prevail, summer planes will be even more jammed, making it tough to change seats once aboard.

If your flight is rescheduled, and seating gets scrambled, forget it. After that happened on Delta Air Lines, Patti Ryan of Boston said she found herself, her husband and three children, ages 3 to 12, scattered randomly throughout the cabin. “We were trying to trade seats with everyone,” she said.

3. Seat fees

When is a coach seat not just a coach seat? When it’s roomier, near the front or next to a window or aisle. Depending on the carrier, it may be dubbed Preferred, ChoiceSeat, Economy Plus or Even More Space. Whatever the name, you may pay anywhere from a few dollars to more than $150 extra to sit in it– if you get the chance.

Many such seats are reserved for full-fare passengers and elite frequent fliers who log 25,000 miles or more each year. Sound like your family? If not, you may be sitting apart this summer.

On a recent test-booking of an Aug. 10 Los Angeles-to-New York flight, American’s website displayed 57 available coach seats to an elite customer but only 19 to a non-elite one. The favored flier found many options to book three seats, either side by side or separated just by an aisle, at no extra charge. But the non-elite flier saw only three options, the cheapest of which carried $78 in extra seat fees.

Julie Morris, American’s director of ancillary strategy, confirmed that the airline reserves preferred seats for certain customers. The number varies, but typically, she said, most seats in the coach cabin can be booked at no extra charge.

Morris added that American helps families with young children by automatically searching for adjacent seats 72 hours before each flight. The revised seat assignments may appear on check-in or when printing out boarding passes.

4. Later boarding

Families first? How quaint. Parents and kids used to routinely march to the front of the boarding line. Not any more. Although many carriers still permit parents with young children to preboard, it’s no longer a given. They may need to pay for the privilege.

Morris said American, which sells priority boarding as an optional ticket add-on, doesn’t specifically allow families with children to board before general boarding.

United Airlines earlier this year ended a six-month experiment in which it preboarded families. “We found out it slowed down the boarding process for all customers, “ spokesman Charles Hobart said.

Both carriers said their employees, on a case-by-case basis, will assist customers, including families, who need extra time or assistance at the airport.

It pays to make nice.

Kaplan, the publishing executive who travels with young twins, said her keys to happy flying are to get to the airport early and ask staff for help.

“I try not to be in a rush and never be mean,” she said.


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