Updated: May 4, 2019
A question that keeps cropping up time and time again from my clients is “What is the law regarding seating parent/s adjacent to their children onboard an aircraft?”
It is our prerogative, should we choose, to be able to pay in advance and secure airline seats of our choosing. But, does pre-assigned mean guaranteed and are there times when it is not possible to pre-assign seats?
There are instances for security, safety or operational reasons that you may not end up sitting in the seat of your choosing. E.g where an airline is forced to change the type of aircraft they were originally operating due to maintenance or load factor, this may result in your seat allocation being revoked. All attempts are made to give you a suitable alternative however, these may not be to your satisfaction. Also, when a flight is booked at short notice all suitable, pre-assigned seats may have been taken. In this instance your agent will need to speak with the airline to see if there are any seat allocations which are not showing available to book online. Sometimes, it is simply not possible for the airline teams to pre-assign seats and in this case you will receive a seat at the airport check-in desk or at the departure gate.
So, for those who choose not to or are unable to (for whatever reason) to pay for pre-assigned seats at what point do the airlines, check in staff, cabin crew feel that it’s acceptable for a young child not to be seated next to their parent? I mean what a start to a holiday! To have to endure the stress of being told that you can not sit next to your young child. Sure, older children may possibly relish the freedom of being able to binge watch back to back episodes of trash TV or play computer games unchided for a few hours at a time. But imagine how you/the airline would manage a toddler for 3 or more hours if you did not have direct control over them.
If I had been separated from my son on his first flight abroad all hell would have broken loose. What would the cabin crew have done with my screaming child when he was separated from me, at a time when he was faced with a new and challenging experience? Would the person next to him have appreciated it or it fact cleared up the vomit when he threw up with stress or motion sickness? (as he often did)
Journalists and news groups appear intent on hounding the airlines for purposely setting algorithms to separate families and groups so that they can profit by charging for seat assignments. I am no aviation analyst and can only comment from my own perspective but for me, seat assignment problems only became a major bone of contention with the emergence of low cost airlines who stripped their service to the bone and sold what is known as “unbundled” fares. My point is, how can airlines ask passengers to give up their seat when they have paid handsomely for the privilege of being there? And with the generic practice of overbooking and load factors apparently averaging 87.5% that does not leave much wriggle room if you need to move seats.
Some 20 years ago there was always the alternative option of flying with one of the full-service network airlines, since each offered a distinctive value proposition but these days many of the legacy airlines are also charging for pre-assigned seats, as well as other enhanced onboard experiences.
So, what’s the official line and can we do anything to avoid this situation?
The Official Line
It depends which country an airline is registered to and what the airlines own policy is as to how a family group is assigned seats. In short there is no definitive answer. Airlines are primarily concerned with cabin safety and how quickly a parent can access a child/toddler should there be an emergency situation.
The Civil Aviation Authority is the UK’s specialist aviation regulator and work alongside The European Aviation Safety Agency. They write “The seating of children close by their parents or guardians should be the aim of airline seat allocation procedures for family groups and large parties of children.
Young children and infants who are accompanied by adults should ideally be seated in the same seat row as the adult. Where this is not possible, children should be separated by no more than one seat row from accompanying adults. This is because the speed of an emergency evacuation may be affected by adults trying to reach their children.
Whenever a number of infants and children are travelling together the airline should make every effort to ensure that they can be readily supervised by the responsible accompanying adults.”
So that’s clear then!
For further clarification I spoke with the CAA as I really wanted to be clear on the rights of my clients. What they told me was as follows “children under 12 should not be separated from a parent” however this falls under the term of acceptable means of compliance, which, in layman’s terms means that it is non-binding and can not be enforced.
In my humble opinion to be seated one row from my young child is one row too far! Will the person in the seat next to them ensure that he keeps on his oxygen mask? As I sure as heck won’t be able to reach it one row away from him, especially if I need to remain seated.
Until there is some sort of law passed that states that children under 12 must be seated with an adult then there are measures that you can take to avoid this stressful situation.
These are as follows:
A number of airlines now charge passengers seat selection fees. I’m not referring to fees for “preferred” seats or those with extra legroom, but fees for any seat assignment at all. So, at the time of booking get all associated fees, including the prices for pre-allocated seats for every leg of your journey, and, for every passenger. Then, bite the bullet and pay the fees, it makes sense for your own peace of mind.
On some routes especially at peak times of the year load factors are exceptionally high, on average 87.5%. Plan ahead and book early. Not only are you more likely to get a better fare you are more likely to get the seats that are suitable for your party.
Once you have your pre-allocated seats, make sure that you keep on top of any communication from the airlines, they will advise you if they are changing the type of aircraft on that route. If they do make a switch check that your pre-allocated seats have been transferred over.
For code share flights it can be notoriously tricky to sort out seat assignments and may involve your agent or yourself calling both or multiple airlines to make the assignments over the phone. The reason for this is that the airlines online seating plans simply do not talk to each other.
Where ever possible travel with the same airline or partner airlines and work towards their elite membership status. If seat reservations are unbookable then the airline will recognise that you are a loyal passenger and will look upon you favourably.
Check-in exactly 24 hours in advance. If people have not pre-reserved seat allocations seats will be assigned at check-in. This is often managed by your agent or yourself online or by the airline. If you do not manually choose and allocate seats the airline will assign seats based on algorithms. And as we all know some algorithms appear to work better than others! So, don’t leave it to the last minute and be forced to start scratching around for the last seat allocations available.
Check in advance with your agent or online yourself to what your assigned seats are and where they are in relation to the other people travelling in your party. Don’t wait until the airline desk or worse the boarding gate to determine what your seat numbers are.
If you are left with little choice (due to late booking) then befriend everyone possible to assist you with your quest to be sat together. Your agent should have good contacts with the airlines and will call them to see how they can assist. A number of seats will be available for allocation on the day or closer to the day, so keep up the pressure and keep pushing (kindly) everyone who can help you.
And remember, if you are left in a situation whereby you are seated away from your child then stay calm and rely on the good judgement of the cabin crew to assist you. It’s in their interest to seat children next to their parents. If you come unstuck on any flight don’t be afraid to politely call upon the good nature of the person/people around you to change seats with you.
“The only way that we’ll truly see airlines treat family passengers with the respect they deserve is to devise a cast iron blueprint regarding families flying together and hold airlines accountable for their actions if any child under 12 is not seated adjacent to their parent.”