Should fee-hungry airlines profit from your kids?

How far would airlines go to collect a few more bucks from you? If nothing would surprise you anymore, then you should hear Hesha Duggirala’s story.

Earlier this year, she booked a summer vacation to Europe for her family of four on United Airlines using frequent flier miles. As a reminder, having lots of frequent flier miles suggests you’re a loyal, and valued, customer.

“The representative who helped us told us that since our youngest child would be under two years when we began the trip he could be ticketed as a lap child,” she says. Duggirala gave the agent her son’s birthdate to verify that he was, indeed, a lap child.

The United agent issued the tickets and the Duggirala family prepared for their European vacation. But only 10 days before their trip, they received a surprise phone call from United.

“An agent told me my son can only be a lap child for the flight to Europe and not on the way back,” she says. “I told them what the representative had originally told us. They said we were given the wrong information and would need to pay the current rate for a child one-way ticket — a whopping $2,800.”

Obviously, the United agent who had booked her award tickets either gave her inaccurate information or didn’t adequately communicate the airline’s policies. They are clearly stated on United’s website. What bothers Duggirala, and me, is that instead of taking responsibility for the error — which could have easily been verified by reviewing the call recordings — United chose to stick it to her.

“The thing that really set me off was the callousness of one of the representatives,” she told me. “She was actually a supervisor that I asked to speak with after a customer rep could not help me. This supervisor very rudely said that my son would not be allowed to board the plane in Stuttgart, Germany. However unlikely or absurd that may sound, it’s simply something you do not say to a mother. I couldn’t shake the image of my precious boy wandering around by himself at Stuttgart airport.”

As a father of three young children, the thought of one of my kids being left behind makes my heart skip a beat.

That nasty supervisor who told Duggirala to take it or leave it was actually just following orders. United’s CEO, Jeff Smisek, has publicly stated he wants to increase “ancillary” revenues by 9 percent in 2013. Apparently, the $5.3 billion in fees United collected from passengers last year just wasn’t enough.

I wish I could say this problem was isolated, but a few months ago, it happened to another reader on a United flight. I’m starting to think this isn’t a misunderstanding as much as it is a money grab.

Seating extortion?

The problem of cashing in on your kids extends beyond lap children. Most major airlines now charge for seat reservations, even in economy class. So when a family wants to sit together, they’re asked to pay even more for the privilege. The art of monetizing children in that way appears to have been pioneered by US Airways several years ago.

When Alexandre Cunha booked a recent flight on American Airlines to Brazil, an airline representative told him it couldn’t give him, his wife and three-year-old daughter a seat assignment. He wrote to me, fearful that he might become the latest victim of the airline industry’s “unbundling scheme” and would have to pay more to sit next to his child.

Even though two separate agents reassured him his family would be able to sit together, they refused to make it official by giving him the necessary seat assignments.

“I believe airlines have gone too far in their resolutions to make a profit,” he told me. “A seat reservation should be done when you buy a ticket.”

I gave Cunha my cell phone number and told him to call me if he and his daughter were separated. Fortunately, the American reps were correct. The Cunhas didn’t even have to pay any more for their tickets, as they feared.

Duggirala didn’t get off that easy. I asked her to contact United in writing, to have a better understanding of what might have been said during her initial reservation. Instead, she called the airline and negotiated the following deal: For an extra 30,000 miles and about $200 in taxes, her son could catch a return flight with the family.

“It’s certainly better than paying $2,800,” she says.

Rules of engagement

You know what would have been even better? If United had reviewed its call records and then said, “We goofed. We gave you bad information and we’re going to honor our verbal agreement with you.”

That would have been the right thing.

Beyond that — and I’m speaking here not only as a consumer advocate but also a father — I think it’s time for everyone to agree on a basic rule of engagement. When it comes to ancillary fees, charge what you want, and whatever the market will bear.

A fee to use the toilet? OK. A fee to have access to an in-flight oxygen mask? Fine.

But shouldn’t our kids be off limits?

Should airlines ever be allowed to make money from our kids?

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Update (8 p.m.): We’ve had a few comments on this post. During most of the day, I was on the road and unable to view the discussion. Our moderators tried their best to bring things back to an on-topic discussion, but at the end of the day, that was my job. I take full responsibility for allowing things to veer off course. I will do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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