Airline seat fees separate mom from five-year-old twins

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By Christopher Elliott

Ever since airlines added new economy-class seat reservation fees, they’ve insisted that the new charges would not lead to families with young kids being separated.

And I believed it — until I heard from Vicki Wallace.

Wallace was flying from Philadelphia to San Diego on recently, when the fees led to her being separated from her five-year-old twins, she says.

Her case is important because airlines have insisted they aren’t forcing their customers to book these “choice” seats for their kids. Airlines also insist they’ll do everything in their power to make sure families with young children sit together on a flight, whether they paid more for their seat reservations or not.

Separated from her kids: “The flight was full”

It all began when Wallace started planning the trip to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.

I reserved my seats ahead of time and was peeved to find I had to pay $67 for a “choice” seat in order to pick four adjacent seats for my family.

Okay, not too big a deal. However, when I checked in the night before, I found that my “choice” seat was worthless, since they moved the other three seats all over the plane – all separated from one another.

Eventually, she remedied the situation by paying more to reserve better “choice” seats. But it came at a price: Wallace says she paid $112 extra for the initial reservations and then another $180 after the airline reshuffled her “choice” seats. That’s on top of her $675 airfare.

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(Note: This is an archived column that first appeared in 2012. Wallace flew on US Airways, which has since merged with American Airlines. And the seat fees are still here.)

But the real seat problems happened on her return flight. “The flight was full, so there was no option to even purchase adjacent seats,” she says.

US Airways separated the family. It sent one member to row 35 and the others were in rows 8 and 9.

“I asked the agents at the gate about getting seats together and they told me they could not help and to ask the flight attendants,” she says. “Of course, once on the plane, the flight attendants were of no help. They told me to ask passengers to swap seats.”

She continues,

My husband disappeared to his seat in row 35 while I hovered around rows 8 and 9 and reached out to passengers to swap seats.

One was an even swap for one aisle seat to another aisle seat, so that was easy. Another woman was not willing at all to move over one seat so we could be adjacent and another by the window was not initially willing, but later changed her mind as I sent the one five-year-old to her seat between two strangers.

So, to recap, Wallace paid the “choice” seat fee on her outbound leg, but the airline moved her seats anyway, forcing her to pay even more in order to sit with her family. Then, on the return, it didn’t offer her any “choice” seat options and separated the entire family again. And for at least a short amount of time, one of her five-year-old twins sat between two strangers.

Are seat selection fees out of control?

Wallace thinks the airline seat fees are out of control.

“I am outraged that I can no longer expect to sit with my young children on a flight anymore,” she says. “We travel from one coast to the next at least three times a year. It is already expensive. Could help me get a refund for the ‘choice’ seats?” (Related: Pay a seat reservation fee, or your kids don’t fly with you.)

Of course.

I asked US Airways to review her case. Here’s what a representative said:

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We got with the customer … gave her some tips on how to book together, and offered a refund of her choice seat fees – which she accepted.

As you know, we work really hard to accommodate families traveling together — whether with small kids or not — and the vast majority of the time it works out just fine. Then we can always try at the gate with no-shows or with other volunteers … lastly, on the aircraft itself.

Airlines have long insisted that they won’t separate families. They say that there’s no need for the government to regulate their seating policies. Until now, I’ve leaned in their direction. The reason: There’s not enough evidence that airlines are separating kids from their parents on planes.

Wallace’s case makes me wonder if I’m on the right side of this argument.

Should the government require airlines to seat families together?

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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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