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.

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