Pay a seat reservation fee — or your kids don’t fly with you

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By Christopher Elliott

Being separated from your family while you’re traveling is every child’s worst nightmare. Every parent’s, too. But Daniel Fitzsimmons recently experienced a different kind of separation anxiety, thanks to US Airways.

Fitzsimmons is an attorney from Watkins Glen, NY, and he recently bought five roundtrip tickets between Syracuse, NY, and San Juan. Just a thing or two you need to know about Fitzsimmons: He’s an experienced air traveler who has booked many flights online. And he specializes in real estate and personal injury law, so there’s not much that fazes him.

But what he witnessed when he tried to book the US Airways tickets for his family made him do a double-take.

Concerns when choosing seats for a family flight

“After purchasing the seats, I later went back to select seats on the two connecting flights. I wanted to be sure that I would be seated near my children,” he told me. “On the last leg, I entered my seat, then my wife’s, then saw that the only remaining seats were premium seats.”

Those “premium” seats—standard economy class seats that cost extra to reserve because they’re considered more desirable—would require an additional $30 each. That’s an extra $90 to sit next to his kids.

And that’s not all.

Fitzsimmons reviewed the booking screens carefully. (Remember, he’s an attorney.) And he came to a troubling conclusion: “I thought that unless I bought the premium seats, my children would end up on a different flight.”

Why? The online seat selection chart shows a diagram of the aircraft. Each of the seats is numbered.

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Decoding airline seating

After selecting seats for himself and his wife, he noticed all the seats except the premium ones were labeled as reserved and unavailable.

“So, looking at the diagram, I concluded that fliers willing to pay for the remaining seats would take those remaining seats. The children would be put on a different flight since they had not been assigned a seat,” he says.

I asked US Airways if his interpretation was correct. It didn’t respond to my inquiry, but it did reply to Fitzsimmons’.

By the way, before I get to the airline’s answer, I should say that I’ve never heard of parents and children being split up in the manner Fitzsimmons describes it. If it happened, I imagine the airline would have hell to pay for it.

US Airways’ Choice Seat program, it explained in an email, “gives customers more say in where they sit on the aircraft. It charges a small fee for these highly desirable seats.”

“We pre-assign approximately 75 percent of the seats on each of our flights.” It continued, “Preferred members and purchasers of choice seats reserve the remaining 25 percent. Once we fill the pre-assigned seats, airport staff may arrange any other seating arrangements on the day of departure.”

Of course, that’s a form letter that never addressed Fitzsimmons’ perception that his kids would fly on a different plane.

This isn’t really about being separated from your kids.

Premium seating and extra costs for family travel

Fitzsimmons, whose kids are 13, 17 and 19, could easily fly solo. At those ages, I would probably pay the airline extra to not be on the same flight with my children — but I digress. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

No, this is about misleading customers into thinking that if they don’t pay for the premium seats, they’ll be separated from a loved one traveling with them. And in my book, that’s a form of emotional blackmail.

It’s bad enough that you have to pay extra for seats in the back of the plane. There are no comfortable seats, only various levels of uncomfortable. And it’s bad enough that companies like US Airways are parsing tickets and seat assignments. But to be threatened with separation if you don’t cough up the cash for a premium seat seems terribly wrong. (Related: Airline seat fees separate mom from five-year-old twins.)

It works, though. Fitzsimmons couldn’t say “no” to the offer.

“Given that there were just a few seats remaining, I purchased the premium seats,” he told me. He said “What would you have thought, when faced with that seat selection situation?”

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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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and 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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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