Family seating controversy: Should I feel guilty for refusing to give up my seat?

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By Christopher Elliott

There are at least two sides to every story, and in the recent controversy involving family seating on airlines, 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 started charging extra for more desirable economy class seats in 2012).

“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 an airline asked me 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 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.  (Related: Stop trying to switch airline seats!)

Update: Stories like this, which first appeared in 2012, have led to real change. At one point, airlines had a family separation algorithm to increase revenues. But that crossed a line, leading to an outpouring of anger. Just before the busy 2023 summer travel season, American Airlines, Alaskan Airlines, and Frontier Airlines agreed to let families sit with their kids without paying extra, after the government intervened.

Passengers are “reluctant” to give up premium seats

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.

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So let’s go there.

Families get special rights, but so do others

No doubt, parents do enjoy special rights when it comes to air travel. Some carriers allow them to board early. Flight attendants offer young passengers refreshments first. Parents with young kids sometimes get 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, when it comes to family seating. Airlines reward them for being profitable. But they also have to keep passengers happy. That includes mediating 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.

Money vs. morality — a test the airline industry usually fails with family seating

This money versus morality argument — oh, that’s something the airline industry doesn’t do very well. And that’s especially true when it comes to family seating.

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.

There’s another side to the family seating argument

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. (Related: Three tips for handling upgrade guilt.)

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 for a family. They shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to feel a little bit of comfort. (Here’s my guide on booking the best airline tickets.)

But don’t blame these passengers or the parents or the flight attendants. 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.

About this story

When this article first appeared in 2012, it sparked a heated debate (scroll down to read the comments). That helped me understand some of the issues more clearly, which led to more informed follow-up articles. A note about the 2012 discussion: This was before we had any real moderation, and some participants were clearly here to argue for their own entertainment. We put an end to that in 2015, and our comments are much more useful and polite today. This article was researched, written and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott. Grant Ritchie and his team edited the article, and Dustin Elliott illustrated it, inspired by Andy Warhol, in 2023.

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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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