Family travel, as rewarding as it can be, is seldom easy. And with increasing airline fees for anything they can charge for, it’s also become much more expensive, especially for cost-conscious travelers who don’t fly enough to have airline status.
It’s not just needing to bring your own food, and pay for your bags. Now families have to pay just to be guaranteed to be seated together.
While surcharges started with seats with extra legroom, they’ve escalated to fees for seats that are no different from others on the plane except that they are farther forward, on the aisle, or the window.
In some cases — with Delta Air Lines and American Airlines especially — I’ve seen flights where a majority of seats have a surcharge. Seriously. And only the back several rows and scattered middle seats are “free.”
Other airlines now charge for pre-assigned seats, period. Many budget carriers have done this for years. But British Airways followed suit for most airfares,with an exception for preferred travel agencies and higher level mileage members. Virgin Atlantic did, too. And last year, Lufthansa started started charging anyone flying on a “highly” discounted fare.
What it really means
I had a family with a child taking their first trip to Italy in August. And they booked in February, so meant they got the lowest fare on Lufthansa, which was still over $1,700 each, or about $200 a person less than the tickets that include pre-assignable seats.
In some cases, travelers are picky. This family isn’t. But they would like their eight-year old to sit with them. To be frank, most travelers without children don’t want to be next to someone else’s child. (Even though, yes, some children are nicer than adults, and they certainly have the advantage of being smaller.)
But it would be $35 a seat, for any preassigned seat, unless they wanted to wait until 23 hours in advance. In the grand scheme of things, not that much money. But on a budget, every dollar counts.
On the one hand, it’s stressful to book six months out, and not to know if seats together will still be available.
One solution in this case would have been to chose another airline, but I’m guessing that the seat assignment fees are going to become more ubiquitous.
Time for family seats?
And what makes sense to me, for everyone’s benefit, is for airlines to reserve some, or at least a few, of the back rows in economy class for “free” family seating.
It wouldn’t be hard to figure who qualifies. Passenger records need birthdates for TSA anyway. And airline reservations systems can already adjust for elite and disable passengers.
But with some free rows in back, cost-conscious families would at least be less likely to be separated. But families who want to sit farther forward in the plane would still have the option of paying for the privilege.
Reserving a few rows for families might also result in the airlines selling more of their “preferred” seats. If business travelers think they have a better chance of avoiding children, many of them would pay more.
Also, if airlines can seat more families together in advance, it may reduce delays at the gate and during the boarding process.
This policy might also help travelers themselves, who sometimes now face the guilt trip game of “Would you give up your aisle for a middle seat so I can sit with my child?”)
Admittedly, since there’s no way to know how many families would be on a plane. And procrastinators might still lose out. But no system is perfect. And in my opinion, booking early should be rewarded.