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Airlines try to upsell seats to parents who want to sit with their children

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Travel experts say domestic airlines have not shown themselves to be sensitive to the needs of families. (AP)

Seating families together on a plane may seem like a no-brainer, but who says airlines are thinking all the time? Parents who have never flown with kids are often astonished to discover that U.S. airlines do not automatically seat them next to their young children. Instead, families typically face two options for getting seats together: Pay extra or jump through hoops.

“I called the airline to get it fixed, and I was told there was nothing they could do unless I was willing to pay extra for choice seats.”

- Keryn Means, a family travel blogger at Walking on Travels

“Airline systems are optimized to squeeze every last dollar out of passengers, but they’re not optimized to seat families together,” says Christopher Elliott, a columnist and ombudsman at National Geographic Traveler magazine.

But you’ll usually get seated next to your child if you’re persistent, says Keryn Means, a family travel blogger at Walking on Travels. Several days before traveling to the Dominican Republic earlier this month, Means discovered that her seats had been reassigned on the second leg of her trip, from Charlotte, N.C., to Punta Cana – and that her new seat was several rows away from her 4-year-old son.

“I called the airline to get it fixed, and I was told there was nothing they could do unless I was willing to pay extra for choice seats,” she says. When Means declined to pay, the US Airways customer service agent told her to see the gate agent when she got to the airport. Instead, Means waited 20 minutes and redialed. This time, a more sympathetic representative found her two seats together in the back row of the plane.

Airlines rack up tens of billions of dollars in ancillary fees each year, largely through the practice of unbundling fares to convert once-included services into opportunities for revenue.

“Obviously, airlines want to make more money, and they discovered that not all seats on the plane are created equal. Some seats are really much better than others,” explains George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com, an award-winning airfare listing and alert site.

Airlines are increasingly holding aside the coveted aisle, window and exit-row seats for passengers who are willing to pay extra. That leaves a limited number of seats available at the cheapest fare, which often makes it difficult for families to sit together.

Means says she never pays the preferred seat fee as a matter of principle. “I am not willing to shell out more money for something that is ridiculous. It should be up to the airline to seat parents and kids together,” she says, noting that parents declare their children’s ages at the time they make the reservation.

In 2012, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced the Families Flying Together Act, which would force airlines to establish a policy ensuring that children 12 and under get seated with family members and that the airlines make that policy visible on their websites.

“Domestic airlines have not shown themselves to be sensitive to the needs of families,” says Nadler. “If they were, there would be no need for this bill.”

Asking passengers to pay a premium for certain seats is disproportionately unfair to families and amounts to blackmail, says Elliott.

“You have parents that might not fly very often, and they are already worried. And now they’re being told that they aren’t going to be able to sit with their child,” he says. “So, yeah, parents are going to cough up the extra $35 just because they don’t want to take the risk.”

“Airlines should not be charging for seat assignments, ever. I think that should be included in the fare,” he says.

Nadler’s bill is lingering in Congress, but “[e]ven so, the DOT shouldn’t need a bill to require that airlines do the right thing,” says Hobica. “If the airlines do not step up on their own, the DOT should just make the regulation that families traveling with young children should not have to pay extra to sit together. That only seems fair.”

Until then, parents can jump through these hoops:

Check and recheck seat assignments. Kelly Eull of Maple Grove, Minn., a mother of two who flies at least once a year with her children, recommends being vigilant about checking and rechecking assigned seats. “We typically book our airline tickets six to eight months in advance, but because of plane changes, seats often get changed around,” she says.

Call the airline as soon as possible. "I’ll call back as many times as I have to,” says Means. “I’ve learned that there’s always a way that they can get you seats together as long as you’re not calling within 24 hours of your flight.” 

Plead with gate agents and flight attendants. When Delta Airlines assigned Eull a seat several rows from her 18-month-old daughter, she says she called the airline and “was told not to worry and that it would be taken care of at the airport.”

When the gate agent couldn’t find available seats together, Eull boarded the plane and enlisted the help of flight attendants who persuaded some passengers to switch seats so the toddler would not be seated between two strangers. “It worked out, but it was incredibly stressful,” Eull says.

Make a deal. If it comes down to asking fellow passengers to switch seats, it helps to have something to bargain with. “One thing people can do is bribe other passengers with drinks or Starbucks gift cards,” Hobica says.

Play chicken. “I have yet to come across a single parent who has actually flown seated away from their young child,” Elliott says. “The flight attendants don’t want to have an 18-month-old five rows in front of mom, at a distance that’s impractical.

“So if you get into a game of chicken with the airline, you’re eventually going to win,” he says. “But you need to be able to stand the stress of not knowing right up until the end.”

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.