I wanted my baby to fly in his own seat. What went wrong?

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Christopher Elliott

Isla Hale-Burgess’ son Jack is an “active” 18-month-old, so when she booked a flight from Seattle to London to attend a family wedding next month, one thing was clear: Her baby had to have his own seat.

She says she paid for an infant seat when she booked her flights on British Airways through Hopper, a popular flight-search app. But then she didn’t get one.

Parents who describe their kids as “active” — as Hale-Burgess did — know that if their offspring aren’t strapped in, they’ll run up and down the aisles, creating chaos. (Mine certainly did.) And it’s also safer than keeping your baby on your lap.

A week after buying the tickets, Hale-Burgess tried to make a seat reservation.

“That’s when I discovered Jack had been booked as a lap infant,” she says.


Fixing this took time and the help of my advocacy team. But along the way, Hale-Burgess discovered the importance of having your baby fly in his own seat. She also learned the importance of leaning on an intermediary when things go wrong.

But I wanted my baby to fly in his own seat!

Hale-Burgess’s itinerary from British Airways showed she had a ticket for two adults, one child and one “infant in seat,” she says. But when she tried to reserve seats, she found that she only had three seats.

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“We contacted Hopper,” she says. “They have no phone number and we can only contact them through their app. We received no response for several days, despite following up again.”

But a few days later, Hopper responded.

“And they were very clear in telling us they could not help, and that Hopper needed to contact their trade desk number. We passed this information to Hopper but heard nothing back,” she says.

(British Airways’ trade desk is a liaison between travel agencies and the airline.)

Short one seat, Hale-Burgess finally posted a tweet calling out Hopper.

@hopper we are still waiting for you to sort out an infant plane ticket. It’s been 3 weeks and the price has more than doubled. Any update?

— Isla Hale-Burgess (@IslaHale) November 2, 2019

“They said they would look into the situation,” she says. “We have had many back and forth messages since then, theirs seemed very generic. Someone eventually called my husband and said that Hopper cannot technically do any more — that the mistake in the infant booking is due to British Airways and that they cannot change it.”

Hale-Burgess then contacted British Airways.

“The answer is always the same,” she says. “Hopper needs to call their trade desk to sort this out. ”

And around and around we go.

Why getting baby to fly in his own seat is so important

Hale-Burgess knew that having a seat for Jack was important. But did she know how important?

Let me fill in some of the gaps:

  • Babies don’t need their own seat.
    14 CFR Parts 91, 135, and 121 require domestic aircraft occupants to be properly restrained during taxi, takeoff, landing, and turbulent conditions. (British Airways operates under 14 CFR Part 129, Foreign Carrier Operations.) However, children under two years old are exempt from the regulations.
  • But the infant exemption is dated.
    The infant exemption, which dates back to the 1920s, was initially granted out of practicality, since infants could not be properly restrained in the existing aircraft seats, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, infant child restraint systems are widely available for use in automobiles and required in all U.S. states. What’s more, independent research by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that strapping babies in seats could save lives.
  • Efforts to require child safety seats have failed so far.
    Efforts to require child safety seats on planes have stalled. Here’s the interesting reason: If parents didn’t have the infant exemption, then they’re more likely to drive. And driving is statistically more dangerous than flying. But in a 2004 NTSB board meeting, the agency recommended jettisoning the infant exemption. But Safety Recommendation A-95-51, the proposed change, never took off.
  • Responsible parents buy an extra seat.
    Parents of babies — particularly parents who know a thing or two about air travel — don’t take advantage of the infant exemption. There are better — and safer — ways to save money when you fly. By the way, the NTSB hasn’t given up on removing the infant exemption. Earlier this year, it renewed calls to revive Safety Recommendation A-95-51. And the Federal Aviation Administration strongly recommends parents buy an extra seat for their lap children.

By the way, if you read the reasons for Safety Recommendation A-95-51, you will never put your baby on your lap again. Remember the crash of USAir flight 1016 in 1994? On that plane, a nine-month-old infant who had been held on her mother’s lap sustained fatal injuries. The child’s mother was unable to maintain a secure hold on the child during the impact sequence, and the child struck several seats. Tragic.

So, good for Hale-Burgess for trying to do the right — and the safe — thing for Jack. But British Airways and Hopper? Not so good.

How to fix this problem?

I reviewed the paper trail between Hale-Burgess, British Airways and Hopper. It was exactly as she described. Each party was trying to blame someone else for the problem.

In the end, Hopper tried to build a new reservation for her family. But as a Hopper representative explained:

This was our initial plan, however the type of booking that we needed to make wasn’t so simple.

There are many different systems that airlines use to make bookings, and the one that this one is on (denoted by a Z) is the most complicated. We are not able to simply make a booking, we have to go through different channels in order to do so.

With all this said and the discussions I have had with my supervisors, we are able to offer the $176 via Paypal for all this trouble which will have Jack as a lap infant.

Let me translate. British Airways has various booking systems and fare basis codes that it uses when making reservations. It appears the Hopper representative is referring to a system issue, since the basis code “Z” is used for first-class travel, and Hale-Burgess and her family were flying in economy class.

Anyway, the replacement seat would cost more than $1,000, so the $176 credit, while welcome, was not enough.

Hale-Burgess could have reached out to the executives at British Airways for a resolution. I publish the names, numbers and email addresses on this site.

How to fly with your baby in your own seat

Hale-Burgess might have avoided these problems. Here are a few strategies for flying with your baby:

  • Book your flight early. Seats fill up fast. You’ll want to book early and reserve your seats early to ensure that your family is seated together. Note that most airlines make you pay for seat assignments in economy class. For families traveling with young children, this should not cost extra. In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring airlines to seat families with children together without charging them more. But the Transportation Department hasn’t written the required regulation and seems unlikely to do so anytime soon. Meaning your seats could cost more than you think
  • Call the special services desk for guidance and assistance on booking your infant’s seat. Most airlines allow you to register any special needs when you book your ticket. For example, British Airways has a department that can assist passengers with special needs. There’s no guarantee that they will, but in many cases, it’s worth a try.
  • Get help from a flight attendant. If you board a plane without a seat for baby, talk to a crewmember. He or she can hopefully find a few empty seats together, where you can buckle your baby. I’ve spoken with many passengers who asked flight attendants for help. Contrary to what you may think, they really do want to assist.

And what if crewmembers don’t care? Appeal to your fellow passengers. No responsible passenger would want a toddler roaming the aisles during a flight. Sometimes, you just have to explain the consequences. They may help.

In the end, Hale-Burgess and her family got seats together. Our advocate Dwayne reached out to Hopper. It reviewed its notes on her case.

“The customer attempted to book an infant in seat on Hopper rather than an infant in lap ticket,” a representative told Dwayne. “Our team went back and forth with the airline and was unable to come to a resolution directly with the airline to change the ticket.”

Hopper fixed the problem.

“Given this outcome, our team went ahead and booked a new infant in seat ticket to ensure that the customer’s child had their own seat on the flight. Hopper has sent the ticket to be reissued with the airline and the child is now confirmed with his own seat on the flight, with no additional charge to the customer,” the representative added.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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