New airline seating policies draw criticism from families

Arlene Satchell / Sun Sentinel /

Published Jul 8, 2012 at 05:00AM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If you want to sit next to family or friends the next time you fly, better not leave it up to chance at the airport.

With some airlines no longer allowing families with young children to pre-board, and others putting a premium price on more of their seats in economy, it’s getting harder to score seats together without paying extra.

Some fliers say the latest changes in air travel are family unfriendly, as they force travelers on a budget to sit aisles apart if they can’t afford to fork out extra for advance seat assignments.

As Americans prepare to travel during the peak summer travel period, some could be in for a surprise if they haven’t flown in a while.

Major airlines, including American and Delta, have added more legroom to certain seats and are charging extra to passengers who want to reserve them early.

Many times these are the only seats available when purchasing a ticket close to your travel dates as airlines have already blocked seats for elite-status and higher-paying customers.

The seat selection process also has become less transparent, experts say. Seat fees can range from $4 to $200 one-way, depending on airline, benefits and destination.

“The airlines are trying to get people to buy the premium seats,” said George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com said. “They’re selling scarcity and position.”

Hobica said airlines are looking at other industries such as sports and entertainment that are making money from seat revenue management, and are adopting similar strategies.

He advises travelers to bring a few Starbucks Coffee gift cards along to bribe fellow fliers into switching seats, or offer to buy them a drink, so that family members can sit together.

Earlier this year, United Airlines ended a six-month trial that allowed families with children to board flights before the general boarding process, spokesman Charles Hobart said Monday.

That move slowed boarding, so United ended the experiment. Families with children now board in their respective ticket groups, he said.

“We found that’s the most efficient way to get all of our customers, including families with children, on board in a timely manner,” Hobart said.

Last month Kaja Meade, a New York mother of a 9-month-old, rallied nearly 39,000 supporters to protest United’s decision on Change.org.

“This is another airline policy that’s bad for travelers, and I’m concerned that others may follow United’s lead,” Meade said. “Like many other parents, I rely on pre-boarding as part of my travel plan. It’s not an amenity; it’s a necessary service.”

Industry watchers also have asked airlines to reconsider policies and fees that unfairly burden and stress travelers with young children.

“Families traveling with infants and toddlers often can’t avoid checking extra bags filled with everything from the many clothes changes needed for small children to diapers, toys, special blankets and baby bottles,” Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, said recently.

In spite of pre-boarding changes, United does encourage travelers with special needs to identify themselves to airport staff so they can try to accommodate their needs,” Hobart said.

Families traveling on American Airlines with small children will be at the mercy of check-in and gate agents at the airport if seat assignments aren’t secured in advance.

“We do not have a hard-and-fast rule about calling families to board,” spokesman Ed Martelle said. “We give the gate agents leeway to use their discretion given circumstances at the gate.”

Some airlines do extend pre-boarding courtesies to families.

Southwest allows family with children younger than 5 to board for free after the A-boarding group, spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said.

JetBlue offers early boarding for families traveling with children younger than the age of 2, spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said.

“We’re in the business of flying people, not just planes,” Steinberg said. “JetBlue’s mission to bring humanity back to air travel, and that means we work to make the travel experience as comfortable and easy as possible for our customers.”

“Do your homework first then go to a travel agent,” said Giuliano Lorenzani, owner and president of Boca Raton (Fla.) Travel & Cruises.