The Idiocy of the Families Fly Together Act of 2012

Airline advance seat assignments are something that many people value, as evidenced by the fact that people are willing to pay for them, and elites consider it a benefit worth their loyalty when they receive the ‘best’ coach seats without paying a premium.

And clearly enough families consider them to be important such that Mommy Points is wondering whether government should get involved to make airlines give those assignments to parties traveling together, for free and a member of Congress is grandstanding on the issue to boot.

Most airlines offer advance seat assignments. If you can’t get seats together, book a different flight where you can.

If there are seats together at a price premium, pay the premium to the extent it’s worth some amount of money to sit together.

This may sound cold-hearted but there are plenty of things that families need while traveling that cost extra, from car seats or harnesses to extra bags and diapers, issues that Mommy Points has written about before. The whole point of her blog is that family travel has certain needs, can be much more expensive (not the least of which because you’re buying more tickets!), and so she helps folks to figure out how to make their travels more affordable.

Seat assignments are a product that in some cases comes at a price, and families need to plan for that. In the case of the “Families Flying Together Act” that asks the government to redistribute from airlines to families but not other passengers.

Most people don’t realize that by many measures Southwest Airlines is the largest domestic airline. They don’t do advance seat assignments which means that seats for families remain available at boarding time. Check in online, plan ahead, get seats together.

The point here is that families do in many cases have a choice to fly the airline whose policies best fit their needs.

In any case, how are airlines supposed to comply with a requirement that families be seated together? Are they supposed to build projection models for the number of business travelers versus families on a given flight, e.g. set aside more “family seating” on weekend Florida runs than Thursday 6pm flights between major cities? And then build out the IT infrastructure to determine passengers under age 12 on an itinerary with older passengers and then open up premium seating to them? And what if the flight is already full? Or there are more families than expected onboard? Or a flight cancels and a family has to be re-accomodated, would offering to seat families apart on the next available flight constitute a violation of the regulations, and should families thus only be offered the next flight on which they might travel together? Or should passengers with confirmed seat assignments be bumped from those in order to seat families together?

One way to solve this would be to eliminate advance seat assignments altogether but that would be destroying value, we’ve already seen that advance seat assignments are something people in general want and are willing to pay for.

But why impose an additional regulatory tax on airlines, already one of the highest taxed industries and one which while profitable in 2012 has not earned a net profit over the course of the entire last century?

It’s equally plausible that one might start a program to redistribute general tax revenue to families to reimburse seating fees. That at least wouldn’t carry nearly the same unintended consequences.

Except that advance seat assignments are the kinds of things that families can and should plan around. They can read the Mommy Poiints blog and watch her Travel Channel videos and be prepared to make their travel easier.

None of which requires an act of Congress.

Ultimately the Families Fly Together Act says more about that august body than it does about the airline industry…

As the 501(c)4 issue ads on television might close with, “Contact Jarold Nadler. Tell him he’ll never out-Chuck Schumer Chuck Schumer, and that he shouldn’t even try. Vote No on H.R. 6124.”

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, 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. With all the problems we are facing today, I cant believe this came on the buffet table as a main dish hehe…

  2. The last 2 or 3 rows of economy (more rows for flights to/from MCO) should not be pre-assigned, and should be held for any families that didn’t get seats together in advance. All problems are solved. Larry gets to sit with his kid and stop making threats to other travelers about what will happen if his precious isn’t right next to him, and frequent fliers, those who prepared in advance, and those who pay for premium seats are not inconvenienced. Heck, we can even let those last 2 or 3 rows board first, so that the carry-on limits can be carefully watched and enforced before the plane get’s too crazy.

    I don’t think we need legislation for this. I’d vote that this is something that just makes common sense.

    Of course, I’m just counting down in my mind how long it takes for some parents to say they shouldn’t have to sit in the back and they shouldn’t be discriminated against for having a family. Guess what? You can’t have it both ways. You made your choice to have kids, the rest of us don’t have to pay the price, you do.

  3. Well, you are thinking this the wrong way. Do you prefer that I seat with my toddler or that you seat with my toddler?

  4. I agree with Gary’s reasoning here except for the fact that airlines have made it much more difficult to obtain advance seat assignments together than it was ten years ago.

    As an extreme case, suppose an airline had a policy that only middle seats could be pre-assigned to non-elites. That would mean only airport assignment would be possible for families.

    You might say that the airline would then have to face the consequences: irate customers. The policy might change in reaction to the problems it causes, all without regulation.

    It comes down to: “Should airlines be allowed to make stupid policies which annoy their customers and don’t work properly? Should we rely on customers voting with their wallets to keep the airlines sane?” This one is a close call, but IMHO the answer is yes. When it comes to making stupid policies, Congress has a much worse record than the airlines and we can’t vote on those policies with our wallets.

  5. Speaking as a former res agent who’s had to try to seat a family of 27 (!) together (obviously not all on the same reservation, making it more fun), at some point this breaks down.

    Do you really want to have to seat the family with 12 kids together as a matter of law?

    What family size becomes reasonable in a legal situation?

  6. Gary,
    Most of the regulation comes from excesses. We have the tarmac rule because they were leaving passengers there for hours and hours. We have the “price change” rule because there a KEmpanies, that think they can cancel a ticket after 2 months.
    Washington is not proactive, they are reactive. So when you say, why we need government here, it is because someone took it to far.

  7. I am not a proponent of Government regulations, though occasionally airlines do seem to need them as they don’t always do a good job governing themselves. And the people who are punished are the passengers and the flight attendants and gate agents. If the airlines could police themselves a little better they could prevent this talk of regulations. No, I don’t think they need to regulate this, but the airlines need to do a better job of keeping families together too.

    First, I ABSOLUTELY disagree about families picking a different flight because they can’t be seated together. Many are not frequent travelers and wouldn’t know how to check this before booking the flight. Also, a different flight may cost significantly more money for the family.

    I’m sympathetic to a young child being separate from a parent, and I don’t want to sit with the kid anyway. But I don’t think a teenage child needs to sit with a parent. And a child only needs one parent, not necessarily both, even if that would be easier for the family.

  8. This is yet one more example of ideas that will benefit some travelers to the detriment of others, and of government meddling in details where it should be keeping its hands off. If these people are too naive to be booking flights in such a manner that they can sit together, there is a travel agent industry with people quite competent to help them do it. Yes, for a fee, but I suppose there any number of services that the typical family or person pays for professional expertise. I can understand why some people always feel entitled, but that does not mean pandering to them.

  9. Can they make a law precluding me from having to sit with my family on the plane if I don’t want to? I could support that

  10. It’s ironic that Southwest Airlines now provides perhaps the best sit-together results for families with small children.

    Several years ago Southwest was excoriated on its blog for moving these families from preboarding to mid-boarding, after the first 60 passengers. Southwest had done its homework, and despite fears of change the new policy worked out fine for these families, allowing them to find seats together in the rear of the aircraft. The only remaining problem is when families arrive at the gate very late in the boarding process.

  11. Yes, this legislation is silly but when you can’t sort out things like this yourself, you’re essentially begging Congress to step in and try and do it for you, which will inevitably result to a “solution” that is worse than the problem.

    It seems to me this shouldn’t be about families flying together, but children, and for that matter anyone else needing help during a flight, not flying alone.

    It’s not a “family rights” issue, it’s a safety issue.

    Children flying alone and seated apart from their parents have been molested by strangers on flights. And in the event of a disaster, in the interest of safety young children, the elderly, the disabled, etc. should not be seated separately from their traveling companions.

    I don’t think it would be unfair or overly burdensome to mandate rules on this if the airlines themselves won’t adopt them.

    All children under 10 (or others requiring special assistance) must be seated next to an adult in their party.
    No need to get the whole family together. You can split them up as long as each young kid is seated next to an adult traveling with them.
    And no more unaccompanied minors under 10.

  12. Legislating something like this is the worst idea I’ve heard this week, although admittedly I was on vacation on Monday, so I might have missed an even more asinine government intrusion.

    My husband and daughter are flying to China next week. The original plan was that we’d pay dollars for his ticket and points for hers. When we realized there was no way to make those arrangements under a single reservation number, thereby increasing the difficulty in maintaining seats next to each other in case of metal changes or other vagaries of travel, we made a choice to pay for both tickets in the same way. We made a non-ideal choice, and spent more, in order to facilitate the seating situation we wanted on the flight. If they still manage to separate them (they are assigned seats next to each other, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it), we will expect them to do their best to fix the problem, since we have specifically paid in order to avoid it. I see it as a customer service issue, not a government one.

    There have been times when the airlines have moved things around and assigned separate seats to us, and so far, every time, a polite request has been met with help to reassign seating. I’ve never encountered a case where the airline wanted our child to sit with strangers. The airline doesn’t want the liability and the other customer doesn’t want the aggravation.

    If I did encounter a situation where an airline refused to make any kind of reasonable accommodation to seat a child under the age of their own unaccompanied minor rules with a responsible travel companion (in my group, or if I witnessed it happening to another group), I would express my disapproval for a long time, with my dollars.

  13. A few points here:

    As to whether or not Congress should or should not get involved, a little perspective here would be useful. First, if you’re going to have legislation, I would argue that simple and vague may be the best in many contexts (which, based on the draft language I saw on Mommy Points’ website, seems to be the case here) so that there is substantial wiggle room for the airlines in implementation, and, again, it just says that they do this “where practicable”. I think that assuming that airlines could be forced to make someone who has paid for a premium seat is premature, at best. Also, I think we may be forgetting what may be the true intent of floating this potential legislation (besides the obvious attempt to score political points) which may be to threaten the legislation to get the airlines to proactively enact their own policies that achieve the same ends in a way that they feel they can best manage, which I would argue is a proper use of legislative power (I, too, would rather see this settled without legislation, but it would be low on my list of complaints with this current Congress if it did happen).

    Next, this idea that “breeders” demand too many rights at the expense of others is strange to me. Since when did we start creating a separate category of people who satisfy one of the basic human urges/instincts, which is to reproduce? Didn’t we all come from “breeders”, and don’t we believe that, at least on a countrywide perspective, that there are huge demographic problems if we didn’t have “breeders”? Furthermore, we fly all the time with our young (currently 3, 3, and 1) children, and, since the beginning of the year, I can count only one of the 10-12 segments we’ve flown with various airlines where we were allowed to board before our status said we were allowed to (and none of them that I’ve flown in the US), and I’ve never been allowed to carry more on board than the airlines’ policies allow (but do remember, they do allow a bit more for certian classes of families, and I guess we can debate the usefullness/fairness of that), and I’ve seen many, many non-“breeders” flout the rules, too.

    Next, why is “special treatment” for families any different than the special treatment that any number of others get: the military, the finicky/religious/allergic eaters, the blind with service animals, the infirm who need to sit with their medical attendant, etc? It seems like no one (or at least a lot fewer people) complain about “special treatment” given to these groups at no additional cost, so I wonder why there is any special vitriol reserved for kids flying.

    Gary says he absolutely does not want to sit with someone else’s kid (I do find this to be true in practice, so I’m less worried about it when our tickets aren’t together – I usually find that if people aren’t willing to move, putting one of my young children in their assigned seat far away from us, and then walking away to get in my assigned seat motivates people to move – and this is rarely necessary, as gate folks normally are very helpful with this), but if airlines don’t solve this themselves, whether it’s right or wrong, it is at least predictable that the politicians will get involved. They ought to have seen this coming – again, for right or for wrong. I know that if I was traveling without my kids and had to sit next someone else’s kid who was crying non-stop because he was separated from Mom, in a seat I paid extra for, I’d be pretty upset (and I might ask the flight attendant to move me or the kid anyway). Again, I hope the airlines solve this on their own without the need for legislation. I think the legal and moral concerns of sitting young children next to strangers is well made, too.

    As to creating family sections and/or logorithms to seat families together, I think that these things are already in existence, at least to some extent. I find that our family is stuck in the “baby ghetto” (it is often hear the rear of the plane – and let me be clear, I’m not complaining) too often for it to be coincidence, so I think the airlines, again, to at least some extent, are already doing this.

    As to the contention that we should make parents pay for lap children, I think this is misguided. Already, for US domestic flights, you are paying full price for a seat, which makes little sense when, in many senses, what you are paying for in an airline ticket is not the volume you take up on the airline, but your weight. When I pay full price for my 30 pound child, it could be argued that I’m subsidizing other adult passenger, especially those among us who are weigh more than average. Since we’re on the subject of charging people extra, why don’t we charge heavier passengers more money to fly (I know if you can’t fit in a seat, I may have to pay for two – I’m talking about weight differences for people who can fit in one seat)? We don’t do that not because those of us who weigh more don’t cost more for the airline to transport (you do), but because it’s thought of as being distasteful to subject passengers to the indignity of getting weighed, and having to pay per pound for their ticket. Not every extra fee that could reasonably be collected is, so the argument that parents necessarily pay more for the right to sit together with their child(ren) doesn’t hold.

    All that having been said, I’m not that passionate about this issue personally. I find I can resolve this issue most of the time on my own, or with the help of ticketing and gate agents. I’ve never paid to ensure that my family sits together, and I suppose I am to some extent playing chicken with other passengers if I don’t book far enough in advance or don’t get my flight changed at the last minute, but I am willing to bear those risks. I suppose we have some atypical advantages to the average traveling family in that we’re all at least United Silver, so that may help us get seats when push comes to shove. However, I do echo that Mommy Points in pointing out that enacting these measures, whether legislatively or letting/encouraging the airlines acheive the same ends with similar policies of their own design does protect some of the most vulnerable travelers: families with small children who are infrequent fliers, and I, for one, think it’s worth doing.

  14. Having kids does not make you part of a protected class. You can book your flights and preferred seats in advance like everyone else. Flying is a service. You are a consumer. Make intelligent choices. You are not entitled to special treatment because you decided to take a flight that does not have seats together. Your poor decisions are the problem, not the airline, and certainly not the other passengers.

  15. On American Airlines, you sometimes can’t select anything but middle seats without paying extra. Right to the back of the aircraft. And that’s a month or more before the flight. That’s nuts. If it’s mandatory to pay extra for adjacent seats, then AA should label this a fee, to be bundled with other fees and displayed as part of the all-in fare per existing DOT regulations.

  16. You should charge a fee for all the babies on this post for whinning so much. Grown men and women complaining about babies. Give me a break.

  17. I personally love the looks I get in business and first class when I bring my babies on board. Sometimes I wish I would load em up w soda or candy and w/o sleep so I can make the trip “more exciting”. 😉 Always amazed at the baby haters who make their way from under the rocks to comment on these boards.

  18. Where YOUR child sits is YOUR problem, not anyone else’s. Want to sit together? Great. So do I. That’s why I PLAN AHEAD so I can. I suggest you try it sometime. Jesus Christ on a pogo stick – entitled, self-centered morans.

  19. It’s interesting to read all these comments; I initially agreed with Gary’s post — why should I, who plan ahead, be penalized by (potentially) having my (normally) favorable (and researched) seat moved to accommodate a family, one which (mostly likely) didn’t plan far enough ahead to accommodate their size sitting together. But the ONE thing that keeps me saying — yeah, it’s okay — is that there are parents out there who are taking their kids on planes and exposing the world to them, getting them out there and making them MORE worldly. If it means on a rare occasion I may have to give up my seat so I can accommodate them, I’ll take heart knowing that they’re (possibly) out meeting new people and experience new ideas and cultures. As a child, I went on a plane but once under the age of 10. And probably only five times under the age of 18. I moved to Los Angeles and my first job involved booking flights for my boss; it was a steep learning curve but it opened me up to what I could do with frequent flyer miles of my own. I found FlyerTalk and dived in deeper. Since there I’ve been to countries I never would have even thought about when I was a child. While there’s a tinge of jealousy that children are now able to fly for much less, I can’t be mad when there’s a small inconvenience that might encourage MORE young people to get out and experience this great big wide wonderful world.

  20. Blocks of seats in the back of the plane are almost always free. Families are welcome to get those or pay fees for the seats of their choice like everybody else does. No legislation is necessary.

  21. Block the last few rows of the plane and stick the families back there.

    This opinion is coming from a mom who has trudged around the world many, many times with her family in tow. Also, I made darn sure my child was quiet during the flight–keeping her from being a nuisance to others was MY jop as a parent. Our best flight was from Key West to Singapore, almost 23 hours of flying, and thanks to the crew on S, they kept our 7 year-old constantly full of food (and enormous Kit Kat bars). If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.

    Ridiculous that the government has to get involved.

  22. The arguement most everyone makes for the seperation of parent and child is molesation. Now, no one is in favor of molestation, but I would argue that its occurrance, ESPECIALLY on a plane is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. If we counted the number of things we are told we cannot do to ‘protect the children’, some people would understand the frustration of those of us without children. If you want to hear more about this, search for the Penn and Teller episode of “Bulls**t” where they debunk ‘stranger danger’.

  23. I really hope you’re not as creepy as you come across in that post.

    It doesn’t happen every day, but there have been a number of reported incidents of kids sitting alone molested on planes. How many more have to happen before it’s something you’ll take seriously enough to consider moving your seat to help out a parent separated from their child?

    Also, molestation is hardly the only safety concern. For example, on one flight, they suddenly lost cabin pressure. Passengers were asked to use their oxygen masks, but there were children seated alone who could not reach them.

    And I hesitate to even ask about the “number of things you are told you cannot do” to protect children that has you so frustrated. The main laws I can think of that are there for child protection (age of consent, child labor, child endangerment) are not ones I would hope it would be very frustrating to have to abide by, the vast expertise of Penn and Teller notwithstanding.

  24. We did do advance seat assignments together in the rear of the plane for free. They still put my child in between two strangers several rows up (separated by a bathroom area). Ridiculous. So are you saying you would rather be responsible for a child sitting without a parent next to you than the parent? Really? I sure hope you know what to do when that child wets his/her pants, because they are too afraid to ask you to get up, or help calm the child during turbulence. Get real. You might not think this a big deal, until it happens to you.

  25. Also, we paid $1200 a piece for our seats (x4). Should we be forced to pay more just to sit together? Really?

  26. What is a family of 4 to do when they have 4 reserved seats together and then United Airlines arbitrarily decides on the day before the flight to change all 4 seats and puts their 22 month old ten rows away from his parents?? And then no one from United can help. They are told to take it up with the gate agents once at the airport. And then the gate agents cannot help and the parents are told they will have to ask people to move once on the plane. Why are paying customers being treated this way? And where is your customer service United?????

  27. Its a new era
    I just paid for a reserved seat on any empty flight for the security of it.
    I shouldnt have but I wanted it just in case the flight was full
    Buy what you want or take a seat assignment that is free
    That is the unbundled system that the airlines have offered us to keep costs lower.Its not always fair or economical but it is what it is.We all have a choice to fly, drive or take the train
    If the flight is canceled due to disruption from weather or mechanical airlines should be held accountable for doing the right thing if folks seated togther had seats previously booked for revenue or award
    At that point everything should be free that is reasonably available

  28. Many here forget two basic things. 1. We were all children once and someone took care of us when we were toddlers. I sincerely hope their peers weren’t as resentful about them raising children as some on this board seem to be. 2. Flights get canceled and families get rebooked. Case in point, for an overseas trip, long planned and very organized, we received an automated call from the airline a few hours before our first leg that that leg was canceled. No explanation, no offer to rebook. We dumped our (already packed) bags in the car and took off for the airport, hoping to get on an earlier flight. It was not easy but we managed to get the last four seats on the earlier flight. Missing it would have meant a cascading series of delays, ending up a full day late to our destination, and missing a train for which we had paid a premium. When we boarded,of course we weren’t seated together. We didn’t expect to be. We had planned ahead, booked our seats together, and the airline had let us down. We settled our five year old with her things, loudly explained to her where we would be, and then began asking for someone, anyone to switch so one of us could sit with our two year old. No one budged. I’m guessing they had the same thoughts many of you do, that we hadn’t planned and it served us right. We were extremely polite, although I probably should have offered cash, and the person sitting next to my child finally agreed to take a (better) seat so I could tend to him.
    I don’t think government regulation will solve this, but a readjustment in attitude and assumption of why other people don’t have seats together might be nice.

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