Do some parents expect too much of airlines?


As anyone who reads this blog will know, I am not often a defender of airlines and their attitudes towards customer service. But lately, some travelers, particularly parents traveling with children, have given me some sympathy for the carriers (and fellow passengers).

A recent case on the local news featured a tearful and angry mother talking about how United Airlines hadn’t let her bring her car seat for her baby on a flight, even though she had paid for a seat, and made her wait seven hours for the next plane.

Sounds awful, right? Except that the reporter clearly didn’t quite get the issue. The car seat in question was “FAA approved,” but it was a longer than usual seat. And the family in question was a party of seven.

What the mother said on the news was that “usually” United Airlines just gave her a seat with extra legroom, but not this time, and so they couldn’t travel in a way that was “safe.” (They did offer her the seats on the later flight.)

Translated, United Airlines usually gave her a free upgrade to economy plus, but couldn’t or wouldn’t this time. With seven people, that would have been a lot of free upgrades. (Normally it’s about $70 one way to Hawaii from San Francisco for non-premiers.)

Now, not being at the airport or talking to the gate agent, I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem like this really was United’s fault.

Similarly, I’ve been on a number of flights lately where family groups were demanding to sit together, when there just weren’t seats left. This sometimes results in haranguing the gate agents, or trying to get the flight attendants to get people to switch onboard.

This isn’t as much a problem when say, a family of four has two pairs of seats including a couple windows or aisles, but when they have four scattered middle seats, it’s a bigger issue. Because then they expect their fellow passengers to give up good seats, and sit in the middle, to make them more comfortable.

On one flight I took around the holidays, a woman with her two children just sat in a row together, and told two late-arriving passengers with boarding passes for those seats that she just wasn’t going to move. (Fortunately a flight attendant defused the situation by offering two open exit row seats.)

As with most cases, a majority of families traveling together do the best they can with reasonable expectations. As anyone who has traveled with even one young child knows, it’s not easy.

The situation gets even more complicated when parents are traveling with a “lap child,” which is any child theoretically under two, where they haven’t paid for a seat.

There’s not a hard and fast solution here, other than the suggestion, that if you ARE traveling with children and it’s critical to have seats together or certain seats, book as early as possible. And look, or have your travel agent look for flights where pre-assignable seats are available.

Or, if it’s an option, book Southwest Airlines and pay the $10 early boarding fee. For that matter, book any airline that allows you to select “choice” or “premium” seats in advance for an extra charge.

If those aren’t an option, try to have a family contingency plan. For example, will you split up if need be? Will you ask about being bumped to a later flight? And, if your children are old enough to understand, explain that in advance that they might not be able to sit with both Mommy and Daddy.

If all else fails, it’s certainly reasonable to try to get seats together at the airport or on the plane. Just don’t blame the situation on the airline, or your fellow passengers who booked earlier.

(Photo: from

  • SirWired

    As an interesting additional tidbit, this is the 2nd time in a month this one lady has had issues with the car seat on an airplane, further suggesting that the problem is with her seat (and her sense of entitlement), not the plane.

  • Jeff L

    I’m with the airline on this one. From everything I have read they offered her reasonable accommodation for her situation. Just because a company was nice enough to offer an exception in the past, does not mean you should expect it.

    Unfortunately, bias against airlines is so bad right now, many people and pundits are taking the passenger’s side in disputes as their default setting.

  • dcta

    I think this lady had become used to the free upgrade to Economy Plus and just figured she’d keep gaming the system. I’m surprised – of course I really don’t know what happened – that they didn’t offer this to her and the baby. Obviously, there were other adults who could have sat farther back with the other kids. And surely this woman knew that she could have gone on-line and paid for those upgrades (it’s not very much) – she just figured she’d keep this up until her kid was too old.

  • John Baker

    So … When you read the article that Sir Wired posted, she knew that her car seat wouldn’t fit in between normal seats, she just “assumed” that UA would upgrade her for free to economy plus so she would have room instead of buying the seat and then pitched a fit when they wouldn’t force other people who had paid the upgrade (or received it as a FF and the last people UA wants to upset) out of their seats. She then took her story to the media to make UA look bad. Wow that is an overdeveloped sense of entitlement!

    As a side note, she did say she called India (aka the call center) to tell them she had a car seat but I’m as positive as I can be that she didn’t tell them she had issues with it fitting in the past since I get pitched for the upgrade on every call into the UA call center.

  • kevin winter

    I really feel for anyone who has to travel with a bunch of kids, I really do, but….

    You know, I paid a lot of money for my seat as well. I took the time to arrange my seat choice. If you want to sit together, book on a legacy airline and pay for your seat choice. Or put them in the family truckster and drive, forgoshsakes.

    Also, when I’m being nice and amusing your kid? It’s not because I’m a nice guy, it’s because you weren’t doing a good job of keeping your kid quiet in the first place. I just decided it was easier to entertain them than getting pestered by them, and I wasn’t able to relax or get any work done with your little angel running loose anyway.

    No, really, I like kids. But sometimes their parents drive me nuts….


  • John

    As someone who travels with kids, airlines basically don’t want you anymore. Flying on a legacy airline, we were not given seats. We booked far in advance but couldn’t get a seat assignment unless we paid a premium. Excuse me? $50 a person to make sure my child sits with a parent and not a stranger? For our family of 5, that adds $250 to a trip.

    Sure, a few will pay. Most will roll the dice and hope to get a seat assignment that works, or negotiate with other passengers once on board. That is a recipe for disaster and not good customer service for anyone. All to squeeze a few extra bucks.

  • Frank

    John January 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm
    That is a recipe for disaster and not good customer service for anyone.

    Interesting. Why was Legacy even brought up? YOU are responsible for your seating assignments. YOU have the ability to select your seat assignment just like the rest of the aircraft. Problem is, seats go fast. Trust me, no one wants a CENTER seat. Some seats are held for Elite flyers, because they spend THOUSANDS per year. Then you have the elderly, which are sometimes placed in the back of the aircraft. It’s painful watching them try to walk that distance, same with the disabled. Try being over six feet tall. Try fitting into a 17 inch seat when you’re obese. EVERYONE tries to jockey for something.
    Now try being a flight attendant in this situation, daily. Try approaching a passenger and asking THEM to move to a center seat for six hours. It’s stressful, some do and some dont.

  • Lisa

    We’ve had several flights now that, despite having booked really early, they wouldn’t assign us seats. I kept trying online to no avail. So, I just call the airline, explain to them that we are two adults flying with two kids, and that we need to get some assigned seats. We would prefer that they are all four together, but in a pinch we would be just fine putting two in one spot and two in the other. I make sure that the airline knows that I’m willing to be flexible, and they ALWAYS put us all four together.

    I have yet to have a problem with this method. I don’t know if it’s because I explained the situation, or just because I was nice to the person on the phone. Either way, it worked.

    And I check my flights at least 2 or 3 times a week, in case something got cancelled or rescheduled and I’ve lost my assigned seats, so that I can call again as soon as possible if need be.

  • George

    John January 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    As someone who travels with kids, airlines basically don’t want you anymore. Flying on a legacy airline, we were not given seats. We booked far in advance but couldn’t get a seat assignment unless we paid a premium. Excuse me? $50 a person to make sure my child sits with a parent and not a stranger? For our family of 5, that adds $250 to a trip.


    If you’re not willing to pay the fee for the service you want, then you have three options:

    1. earn status on an airline and book everyone in the same record
    2. fly a carrier that won’t charge you for seat assignments (most don’t)
    3. don’t fly

  • Christophe

    The main issue is why a FAA approved seat for an infant would not fit in a regular coach seat on that airline ! And I don’t buy the excuse that it is because it is longer than an usual seat : it is approved by the FAA, and therefore it should be able to fit anywhere in the plane.
    If the airline choose to have seats that will be of smaller size or pitch than FAA regulations, so be it (and it is their customers choice to accept them or not), but the free upgrade to a regular size seat of anyone that could not fit is just a due !

  • Dawn

    Good Morning-I have read all of the above comments and as a flight attendant of many years, with a legacy carrier, I appreciate this lively discussion-

    Speaking for myself (I am based in Hawaii), whenever we have parents with a child or children, no matter how they have been booked, or when, or if they are together or not, I and my colleagues do our best to get the families together-(we do not want children separated from their parents, for safety and security purposes especially)- We don’t have the time to check with the agents and see why they weren’t put together (boarding time is short enough as it is)-We just try to accommodate each passengers needs the best we can-

    Above, SirWired and DCTA have it correct that there are passengers, perhaps this lady, who try to not pay extra but get extra consideration, especially if they have gotten it before, by being moved to the Economy Plus area-All passengers (as Frank above said), are jockeying for particular seats and you are absolutely correct, Frank, NO ONE wants a center seat-And also, anyone sitting in Economy Plus, who is not a premiere passenger, has paid the extra fee for the extra room-(the extra fees for most anything now is a totally separate issue for another day’s discussion)-

    Also, we, as flight attendants, totally support and recommend that passengers with children under 2 bring a car seat, as that is the safest way possible to protect a child, whether in turbulence or much worse-That is the only way I would travel with a young child, as they are priceless and you should do everything to keep them safe-

    Having said that, like this lady, there are many car seats these days that are designed for the child to sit facing BACKWARDS (which is apparently safer for the child)-This means that when they do put the car seat in the row, as you see in the above picture, the passenger in front of that seat can NOT recline their seat-Then, another sort of issue develops-This may be the reason that parents are upgraded, without paying the extra fee, to the Economy Plus seat, for the extra room (without inconveniencing the passenger sitting in front of them-

    As Lisa said above, if you have certain situations, when you are traveling, you just do as much as you can ahead of time, to get your needs taken care of, and especially being as respectful and nice to the different individuals you are dealing with-(Yes, there are FLAKES out there, but the average airline employee, if treated with respect, will do everything they can to make your travel experience as hassle free as possible-Pay the extra fee if your needs require it-

    Finally, as Kevin mentions above, if you don’t like the airline’s rules, just get in a vehicle and drive-Well, that is impossible to do when you are flying from the mainland to Hawaii, so that option is not available-

    I have always thought that we, at an airline, expect a lot from hundreds of people, stuck together with other strangers, in this long, thin tube, to get along with one another, in a very confining situation-And, I happily say, that after 33 years of flying, I have yet to have an air rage type of situation occur on one of my flights-Most people just try to get along-That is why it is truly rare, (but news worthy), when a situation happens, like the above-

    Thanks for listening-Sorry this seems to me a bit long winded (I normally read the comments from these type of sites but never write my own)-Just thought you might like to hear from someone who lives in “the friendly skies” on a daily basis and sees just about everything that can happen HAPPEN! Happy and safe flying to all-

  • PauletteB

    I CHOSE to be a parent; it didn’t ENTITLE me to special treatment. This new generation of parents who feel as though they don’t have to follow the rules simply because they are traveling (eating in a restaurant, shopping, etc.) with a child is pathetic. The woman who sat her children in two seats that belonged to others and refused to move should have been kicked off the flight with her brats-in-training. Notice to parents on my next flight: I paid extra to board early/get an assigned window seat. Any request to move to accommodate your lack of planning (or cheapness) will be completely ignored.

  • Alison

    Honestly, I’m not so sure that parents are looking for special treatment as they are concerned for the safety of their kids. Probably most parenst would welcome the chance to have their kids sit elsewhere – but In an emergency, if your kids are younger than 12 and sitting without a parent – they are on their own. And sitting next to strangers can be downright creepy. I’ve sat next to men who have pulled out playboy magazines on airplanes. My last flight, I planned 8 months in advance and secured seats together, but at the last minute the flight was cancelled and we were shuffled onto new flights without seats. There are many wonderful flight attendents who will help you pull your family closer together, but this was not my experience on this flight. He, unfortunately, taxed his energy moving a Hassidic Jew who refused to sit between two women to have any left for helping my two under 12 kids move even within sight of a parent. I can’t say it enough, sitting families together is really a safety issue.

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  • Anonymous

    To the best of my knowledge, South West makes no attempt to seat parents and their young children together. If your family is near the middle or end of the boarding process, you are totally screwed. Unless another passenger gives up their seat, you could easily be separated from your 2 year old and have no recourse. Even buying the early boarding option is NO guarantee whatsoever. What sense does it make to have a policy that divides families and traumatizes children.