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Why Won’t Airlines Let Families Book Their Seats Together?

Finding seats together on an airplane shouldn't be this hard.


Happy children seated together.

CreditTrips + Giggles

One of the biggest pains of flying with children actually happens before you get anywhere near the boarding area. Instead, your first sign of frustration usually happens when buying your tickets online.

As seasoned traveling families know, it's near impossible to select seats together at the time of purchasing your flights. Most often, parents have to buy the flights first, select all the crappy middle seats that only seem to be available, and then hope the airline will accommodate their seat requests sometime before take-off. Otherwise, families are forced to wait until they've boarded the plane before asking strangers the dreaded question: "Would you mind switching seats so my child and I can sit together?

And now, thanks to the advent of "Premium Seats" on airplanes, which typically offer more legroom, earlier boarding times, and occasionally, unlimited snacks, parents are sometimes forced to pay for these premium seats so they can all sit together. There was even a well-publicized incident where a parent was told by the airline that if he wanted to sit near his toddler-aged daughter, he would have to buy a premium seat. Only later, did the dad realize the airplane had plenty of non-premium seats available.

So how can you get your family to sit together without having to pay an extra $50-$80 a ticket or without pleading with a stranger during the already frenetic boarding process? 

First, you need to understand that at the time of booking, the airlines purposely only show the crappy middle seats and very few window or aisle seats. According to George Hobica of the excellent site, who wrote this piece last year, the airlines "hold back a large number of "standard" economy seats even if the flight is half empty." This is done so the status members of an airline's loyalty program get first choice at the better seats and because the airlines hope showing only crappy middle seats will entice people to pay for the premium seats instead. 

Obviously, this is a ridiculous practice and needs to stop. A few years ago, a Congressman Jerrod Nadler introduced the Families Flying Together Act which would require airlines to seat children under the age of 12 with a family member. Unfortunately, that law never passed. So for now, we're stuck dealing with this shady sales tactic.

But before you give into the fear of sitting rows away from your 3-year-old and pay for those premium seats, call the airline immediately after buying your ticket, or even during the purchasing process, and let them know the ages of your children and why it's imperative that you sit together. I've often found that in speaking to a customer service agent in person, will often help you get the seats you want. Or at least, the agent will make a note on your reservation about sitting together which will let the gate agents know to rearrange your seat assignments before the flight.

Having status on an airline will also help you. I am Elevate Silver on Virgin America and when booking tickets for myself and my children, I've been able to assure that our seats are together at the time of booking. 

Or you can choose to fly an airline like Southwest Airlines which has open seating (passengers board in different groups but are free to sit wherever they like.) Internationally, British Airways is the only airline to have an actual policy in place requiring families to sit together. 

Sadly, it doesn't hurt to brush up on your sweet-as-pie asking skills since you may still have to ask someone to switch seats with you. But please keep in mind, someone who specifically booked an aisle or window seat may not be willing to trade for a middle seat. So try to keep your trades to aisle for aisle, window for window or middle for window/aisle to ensure seat switch success. 

Meanwhile, I think I'll probably send Representative Nadler an email and see if he feels like getting the band back together. 



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