Flight Attendant Declares She’s Sick Of Families Asking Solo Travelers To Switch Seats

The Department of Transportation has been pressuring airlines to accommodate seat assignments for families free of charge. Previously groups of passengers that wanted to sit together might have to pay extra for seat assignments, or negotiate swaps at the gate. This effort has been largely successful.

However airline policies aren’t going to require other passengers with assigned seats to give up their seats so that families can sit together. If a family books onto a mostly full flight, there may not be available seats together. And when a flight gets cancelled, that new flight may not have seats together.

This usually gets sorted out, at the gate or on board the aircraft. Nobody actually wants to sit next to your children. Still, it’s best to get as good a seat as you can to offer up in trade. Don’t expect someone to give up their extra legroom aisle seat for your middle in the back of the aircraft, for instance.

One woman, though, is telling the world via an opinion piece in The Guardian that she’s sick and tired of being asked as a passenger to switch seats to accommodate families.

She’s also a flight attendant, so she’s also asked to accommodate the seat switchers, and she hates family travelers regardless of their seating needs, because they have other needs too (which presumably interrupt galley gossip or the latest issue of People or OK!).

Cabin crew have a term for these kinds of passengers – the Mary and Josephs; parents who act like they were the very first people on the planet to have children. You can often spot them loitering in the galley or carrying way too much luggage. They ask cabin crew to heat their baby bottles and food; they complain about the temperature.

The argument against switching seats is that the passenger has paid more for a better seat that they’re being asked to give up – and also that that passenger is always a woman so it’s sexist. But this simply doesn’t ring true:

The woman travelling alone is seated in the emergency exit row with extra legroom. Moving her to the seat behind would mean a less comfortable flight for her. Why should she have to give up her comfort for someone else’s children? I am fed up of solo passengers having to accommodate other travellers just because they have kids in tow.

The example of being pressured to give up an exit row seat makes no sense, because passengers are not asked to move from exit row seats in order to provide them to children:

  • In the U.S. the specific age to sit in an exit row seat is 15.

  • In Europe you must be an adult, and families traveling with children are expressly not permitted in exit rows.

The author references “a recent flight to Los Angeles,” where “one parent even told me to be quiet because their baby was sensitive to noise.” So let’s assume she’s talking about the United States. There is no reason to move to accommodate a family so that a 15 year old can sit with their parents. A 15 year old is allowed to travel on a plane in the U.S. by themselves, without being in unaccompanied minor status.

Moving seats to ensure families sit with children evokes images of parents separated from their five year olds, not their fifteen year olds. The Guardian should be fact checking their opinion pieces. When I’ve written op-eds for major newspapers there has been a rigorous fact check process.

You do not have to give up your seat. If you’re indifferent between seats that are on offer, it’s the nice thing to do. It’s even better when you’re offered a superior seat for your trouble. Consider offering $20 or at least buy the passenger that’s moving a drink on board as a thank you.

At the same time don’t resent someone for asking, of worry that someone might be getting something for free that you had to pay for. Too much of our politics is about giving things to specific groups when it benefits the giver politically. But that’s a problem of our politics, not the harried traveler who also wants their baby’s bottled warmed, and who needs to sit with their three year old to supervise them responsibly.

(HT: Michael C.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @kcwpg:

    Your general thoughts are correct, but it is an airline problem that some are trying to impose on other passengers.

    Flight attendants can ASK other passengers to move, but they are trying to deescalate problems on board, not exacerbate them.

    The key is that reservation agents should be blocking seats and moving people behind the scenes–not on board the aircraft or at the gate.

    The problem becomes how do you handle someone who booked in advance and is being moved involuntarily from their assigned seats.

    The only real answer is to leave a block of unassigned seats for gate assignment, which the airlines don’t want to do. They are trying to decrease gate agent needs, not increase it.

    There is no easy answer.

  2. Just to let it be known, that we ( a family of four including twin daughters that are 8) book our seats together frequently to be separated from each other and our children and we are told that we will need to ask people to switch to be seated near our children. If they are able to change our seats, the staff usually acts as though they are accommodating us and going out of their way. Make no mistake, I love my children more than life itself but I’m ok if you think it is safe and appropriate to place my children next to someone else… just make sure they are willing and capable to help in case of emergencies and possibly opening drinks, snacks, etc… oh yes, and one usually gets sick at the end of the flight so, for the love of everything in this world , try to have at least one emesis bag in the entire row:)

  3. I’ve travelled for business work extensively, and try to sit in aisle seats for specific reasons. Circulation (to prevent clots) and the possible need to disembark to race (yes, literally) to a connecting flight. I’ve experienced all kinds of requests over the years. Most are reasonable, and if I have no constraints, I try to help. I have had unreasonable requests though, and occasionally they have been contentious. The worst are preboarders who take your assigned seat, and when claim its theirs when you board. On one occasion I thought I was going to be kicked off a flight because one refused to take their assigned seat. If you ever do much routine travel, you will see every kind of behavior. Rarely, but once in a while, it is extremely rude.

  4. Last year on a trip from Atlanta to Greece, I did not get a single seat I paid for. First flight a young man was in my window seat. When I told him he shrugged and said “I’m already seated. I sat. Middle of course. For 10 hours. Next, the check in moved me, you guessed it. A family. I sat for hours in a middle seat with a gentleman who read for 10 hours with the overhead light on. Why not pitch a fit? I would end up the crazy southern lady on youtube. Being someone who has traveled a lot for work and pleasure it is getting worse. I would not want to be traveling weekly as I once did.

  5. On a recent trip to California with my daughter, we had to request to have our seats reassigned. We had booked our flights months prior and had assigned seats together. At the airport, they had changed our seats without our knowledge and were no longer sitting together. I noticed the change before we went through security and the counter agent kindly worked his magic to get our seats together again. So while I’m sure there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes requests for changes, other passengers who have paid for certain seats together are being affected as well.

  6. I have permanent hip and shoulder injuries, and have learned to book Economy+, or even the rare First Class splurge. Because then, the airlines are less likely to rearrange you on a whim. And they will rearrange you on a whim if you haven’t paid out for something premium.

    My husband used to travel for business and was Platinum level at the time. For a personal trip we booked economy seats but still chose our seat assignments. We checked in 24-hours ahead of time, and we had the seat assignments we’d booked with, all good. When we got to the airport I was having a bad joint day, so we decided to just check our bags since free luggage was a perk of his Platinum status. So we go to the counter, and the counter agent says, “Oh, you need new boarding passes.” We were confused, and she ended up giving us new seats – my husband retained his window, I retained my aisle, but we were now several rows apart and many rows back from the front. (Yes, we sit with a middle between us – we don’t talk over the person in the middle because that’s rude. But my husband loves to look out the window and I can’t do the middle with my joints, so we just settle in and act like strangers.)

    There was no equipment change or anything – the seats we had checked in with and that still showed up on the boarding passes in our Delta apps were just no longer ours. We got no explanation for it from any Delta staff and they refused to engage with us – no apology or anything. We ultimately just took the new seat assignments – it was a 2 hour flight, we are not the kind of couple joined at the hip anyway, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but we were just totally mystified.

    Once we boarded and walked past our originally assigned row? There was a group of people sitting in our seats saying, “See? I told you if we bugged the gate agent enough they’d let us all sit together!” And there weren’t even kids involved! I wondered if they had just parked themselves in front of the check-in desk and refused to move until a gate agent got fed up and reassigned the couple who clearly didn’t need to sit directly next to each other.

    So if that’s how they treat tickets booked by a Platinum status customer, why on earth does anyone think that a family may not have actually booked together in Economy, but somewhere along the way, their reservation got hosed? It’s why I don’t assume these families didn’t plan ahead – I mean, some clearly don’t, but you can book tickets together and then have your seat assignments disappear between booking and check-in. (I have been known to log in and check a reservation periodically before a flight to make sure our seating assignments still stand.)

    This isn’t to say I’ll give up my seat – when I was flying solo, I did it once for a woman who swore up and down she had an aisle further back and she needed to sit with her child. Nope, I ended up in a middle seat between two huge shouldered men…and she ended up walking a toddler up and down the aisle the whole time so the tween aged child she’d begged to sit with was clearly fine on their own. I hobbled off that flight in a lot of pain, and swore never to do that again.

    Flying is just a nightmare from top to bottom these days.

  7. This is a cultural blemish on our collective face. It doesn’t just happen on aircraft but in multiple other venues as well, including dinner parties in private homes. Let me be clear: Unless you have a very, very good reason (tiny child, medical needs) for being unwilling to sit more than 3 feet away from your spouse or kid for two hours, stop it. You are together all the time; quit pressuring single people to sacrifice for you because you believe your preferences automatically matter more than theirs. It makes us feel like second-class citizens.
    Book your traveling seats together, arrive early to the gathering, etc. But don’t expect someone else to move just because “we’re a family, and we wanna sit together.” Respect. Talk to others once in awhile. It’s healthy.

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