A family traveling together on a plane

Imagine arriving at the airport and finding out your 2-year-old’s seat assignment is in the back of the plane and yours is in the front. Or that your child who is autistic or suffers seizures is seated rows away from you. Or your flight gets canceled and you have to pay thousands of dollars extra when you rebook because the only way to ensure your family can sit together is to buy more expensive seats.

Those are some of the more than 100 consumer complaints Consumer Reports uncovered in documents the Department of Transportation provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

You may assume that when you fly with young children, you’ll be seated together. But as these families learned, there’s no guarantee that children 13 and younger will be seated with parents, caregivers, or other family members when they fly unless they pay a fee to reserve seats.

Congress thought this was a problem, too, and in 2016, as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, directed the Department of Transportation to review airline family seating policies to help ensure that young children can sit with their families on airplanes at no extra cost.

But three years later, CR has found out that the DOT doesn't plan to ask airlines to make any changes to their family seating policies. Instead, the agency simply added a section to its website offering advice to families about sitting together and linking to airline websites for information about their policies on family seating. 

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The DOT said new family seating rules were not necessary because less than 1 percent of complaints about airlines that it received from June 2016 through May 2017 were about family seating.

But consumer advocates say that separating children from their parents during flights not only is stressful to children and parents but also poses safety risks if there is an in-flight emergency and may even put them at risk for sexual assault. “There may be small numbers of complaints, but it’s a serious issue,” says Anna Laitin, director of financial policy at CR.

And, she says, the problem is growing because buying a plane ticket with a reserved seat has gotten more complex and expensive. Typically, the lowest-cost basic-economy fare doesn’t allow you to reserve a seat in advance. For families traveling with children, buying tickets that permit reserved seating can be cost-prohibitive, Laitin says.

Because of those concerns, CR sent a letter to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week asking Congress to evaluate whether new regulations are needed. CR is raising the issue ahead of a House Subcommittee on Aviation hearing today to review implementation of the most recent FAA budget reauthorization.

Family Travel Horror Stories

CR reviewed 136 consumer complaints against 19 U.S. and foreign airlines sent to the DOT from March 2016 through November 2018. Consumers often said they didn’t know that families weren’t routinely seated together or were told that they could arrange for seats together when they got to the airport.

A common theme was that airlines often imposed or attempted to impose additional fees for preferred seating or early boarding for families with young children, says William McGee, an aviation adviser to CR who reviewed the complaints.

In multiple cases, children under 5 years old were seated apart from the adults traveling with them. Consumers resorted to asking strangers to trade seats or, when that failed, were asked to deplane or chose to leave out of concern for their children. In the worst cases, families who had to rebook their flight to ensure they were seated together paid thousands of dollars more, in one case totaling $4,341 more and in another case totaling an additional $14,084.

Some people complained they were worried that young children sitting away from their parents and caregivers would be at risk for sexual assault. While no reports of sexual assault were found in the complaints CR reviewed, the FBI has documented a rise in sexual assaults of adults and children on airlines.

An FBI report last April found that the number of assaults, which typically involve unwanted touching, rose to 63 in 2016—the latest statistics available—up from 38 cases the prior year. The FBI stated that unaccompanied minors are often victims, and its recommended precautions include keeping a close eye on children in-flight.

What to Do

Absent new regulations, the only way you can guarantee your family will sit together is to pay for a reserved seat, McGee says. But there are ways to help you avoid the problem even if you don’t pay extra. Here’s what to do.

Read the fine print. If you are buying the lowest-price ticket, most airlines require you to pay an additional fee to reserve a seat in advance. Airlines will include that information when you book, but read the fine print to make sure you know what you’re buying.

Call the airline. If you don’t want to pay more, you can try calling a reservation agent at the same time that you’re booking your flight online and say you are traveling with children. While the airline is not obligated to seat you together unless you pay extra to reserve seats, the agent may be able to make an exception or note in the reservation that you are traveling with children, which could help you later. 

McGee says don’t wait until the last minute make sure that you and your children are seated next to each other. Flights operate so full these days, there’s little wiggle room if you don’t arrange for seating in advance. 

Book carefully, then confirm. Make sure parents and children are booked on the same reservation. Then confirm your reservations before you go to the airport. Seats could change at the last minute if, for example, there is a change of aircraft. 

Appeal at the gate. If you don’t realize that you and your children are separated till you arrive at the airport, talk with a gate agent. Airlines for America, the largest U.S. airline trade association, says the carriers try to let families to sit together without imposing additional charges but leave it up to customer-facing employees to make seating arrangements on a case-by-case basis. 

File a complaint. When you have a problem, even after the fact, you should file a complaint. The DOT says it will continue to monitor the issue and has created a separate complaint category for family seating. Here's where to file the complaint.