Should I feel guilty for refusing to give up my seat to a family?

No, you can't have my seat. / Photo by Wex Dub - Flickr
There are at least two sides to every story, and in the recent controversy involving kids and airline seating, the other side didn’t get a lot of airtime.

I’m here to correct that.

It’s voices like Carla Overbeck, who recently overheard a flight attendant ask a passenger if he wouldn’t mind moving so that a family could sit together. (As a refresher, airlines are charging extra for more desirable economy class seats, leading some to conclude that families would be separated — a claim I doubted).

“Of course I wouldn’t mind if I had a middle seat to give that up for another seat,” says Overbeck. “But I think I would be upset if I were asked if I were willing to move from an aisle seat. There would be a guilt factor if I said no, but I would be unhappy with myself and the airline if I said yes.”

In fact, there’s a largely silent majority of non-parents who who meekly suggested they shouldn’t have to give up their seat for a family. And that’s especially true if they’ve paid extra for a premium seat, they say.

As reader Jennifer Minchau, herself a mother, admitted “those who have paid for premium seats might be reluctant to give up their seat up for my special snowflake.”

All of which raises the question of who has more rights: flying parents — or paying passengers?

It shouldn’t ever come to this, of course. But it apparently has and it could happen with more frequency in the future.

So let’s go there.

No doubt, parents do enjoy special rights when it comes to air travel. Some carriers allow them to board early. Babies are offered a drink first, along with first class passengers. Parents with young kids are sometimes given bulkhead seats in order to manage a toddler on a long flight.

Yet at the same time, airlines cater to those who pay extra. Even if you’re in the back of the plane, if you’ve shelled out $25 for an exit row seat, you have the right to that seat — maybe even a special right to the seat as opposed to the passenger who requested the exit row at check-in.

Airlines place their flight crew in a difficult position. They’re rewarded for their company’s profitability. Yet they’re also asked to keep passengers happy and to mediate any in-flight disputes, including those between parents who think they’re entitled to sit next to their kids and other passengers who think they’re entitled to the seat they reserved.

This money versus morality argument — oh, that’s something the airline industry doesn’t do very well.

I’m reminded of Raj Wadhwa, who was flying from San Francisco to Chicago on United Airlines with his wife and kids, ages 10 and 12. The flight was completely full, and his family had paid for the trip with miles. That’s an important detail.

“Once we were boarded – and we were about 10 minutes past the scheduled departure time, one of the flight attendants informed my wife that my 10-year-old was being bumped to make room for a revenue passenger with a higher status,” he says. “It seems the passenger who was bumping my daughter had missed his connection from an international flight and was not willing to take the next flight – even once he found out he would be bumping a 10-year-old – and the gate agent was going to allow this to happen.”

Wadhwa and his daughter disembarked and took the next flight. He complained to United, and it send him a form apology and a $25 flight voucher.

The absurdity goes the other way. And nowhere can you see it on more consistent display than at my home airport, Orlando. Every flight is filled with kids on their way to a theme park vacation with parents who think they deserve to board first, sit together for free, and have the flight attendant tell them how cute their kids are, even if they are not.

The passengers who paid extra for their premium seat have a right to sit there. They have the right to not feel guilty when a flight attendant asks them to move in order to make room for a family, and they don’t feel like it. They shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to feel a little bit of comfort on what is arguably the most uncomfortable way to travel in America today.

But don’t fault these passengers or the parents or the flight attendants who have been put in a difficult situation. The blame for all this falls squarely on the shoulders of the airlines, whose managers obviously didn’t consider the implications of selling seat reservations.

It’s up to them to find a solution.

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