In letters sent to American, Delta and United Airlines, Consumer Reports called on the companies to ensure children are seated with their families on planes at no additional cost.
More than 160,000 people have signed Consumer Reports’ petition to the airlines in support of this effort since it was launched just over a week ago.
“Families face a constant battle to ensure they are seated together, even when they choose seats far in advance,” said Anna Laitin, director of financial policy at Consumer Reports. “The airlines should put safety first and seat children with their families without charging them extra for it.”
Consumer Reports delivered its letters to the three major airlines in advance of a hearing by the House Aviation Subcommittee, held on Tuesday, March 3, examining the experiences of airline passengers and what can be done to improve it.
In 2016, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to “review, and if appropriate, establish a policy” to ensure airlines allow families with children 13 and under to sit together without paying additional fees.
After two years of inaction by the DOT, Consumer Reports filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out the status of this inquiry. One year later, the DOT finally forwarded 136 consumer complaints to CR, while indicating that it was unnecessary to take action “based on the low number of complaints.”
Consumer Reports analyzed those complaints, and discovered that some involved children as young as one or two years old were assigned seats apart from their parents. Other children seated separately were autistic, suffered seizures, or were susceptible to life-threatening nut allergies.
CR began publicizing the issue last fall and set up a portal to the DOT’s complaint system, generating more than 600 submissions in just two months – well over four times as many as the agency received in the previous two and a half years.
Parents who submitted complaints shared how they bought tickets and chose seats together, but the airline reassigned their seats before the flight. They were forced to pay for an upgrade, or beg gate agents, flight attendants and other passengers to switch seats with them.
Other families buy low-cost Basic Economy tickets only to find that this fare didn’t just deny them the opportunity to pick their own seats; it put the parents in seats far from their children. Some families are told gate agents can fix the problem, but only if they are willing to pay an extra fee.
Beyond the anxiety and frustration, this causes for families, seating children away from their parents also creates a safety risk for all passengers during an emergency. Furthermore, a 2018 FBI report found that inflight sexual assaults are on the rise, with investigations into assaults on children as young as eight.
Over the past week, all three airlines have maintained that they have policies to ensure children are seated with their parents. However, the complaints submitted recently to the DOT make it clear that this problem persists and that these policies are not always followed. Too often, the onus is put on the parents to ensure that they are seated with their children, rather than the airlines who control the seat map and know the ages of all of the people traveling on the plane.
“The airlines can fix this problem without government intervention,” said Laitin. “Ensuring that children are always seated with their parents regardless of the ticket purchased would improve safety and security for all travelers while easing the minds of families.”