Parents Should Always Have The Right To Sit Next To Their Kids On An Airplane

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
mother and baby looking out airplane window
Scary Mommy and Marc Romanelli/Getty

Some airlines no longer allow economy passengers to choose their seats in advance, and they no longer guarantee that families will be seated next to each other. As a father of three young children on a shoestring budget, this is giving me some serious heartburn.

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but flying with kids sucks. It sucks real bad. Last time we flew as family, my three-year-old was handed a glass of apple juice and she handled it like a drunken woman in heels on a dance floor holding a martini. My seven-year-old daughter’s ears wouldn’t pop, so she cried for 45 minutes, and my nine-year-old son spilled his treats on the floor, and you’d think he was experiencing exorcism. Let me just say, all this noise made us the most popular people on the plane. Naturally, my wife and I were all over the situation, cleaning up messes, and handing out gum for ears that wouldn’t pop, but I can’t imagine how all of this would’ve played out if we’d had to sit apart.

But this is exactly why it’s ridiculous to expect parents traveling with children to sit away from their kids. Ever. Without seat assignments—which can come with a steep fee or require the purchase of a more expensive class of ticket—there’s no guarantee that children, even toddlers, will be seated with parents or guardians. It’s a problem some airlines say they’re addressing, as complaints from passengers keep rolling in.

According to a recent article on Consumer Reports, the Department of Transportation received 600 complaints about family seating in just the past three months, quadrupling the number it received in the previous two and a half years.

Airlines are not required to seat children next to their parents unless the child is two years old or younger. So that means you could buy an economy ticket, and in a worst-case scenario, you wouldn’t be assigned to sit next to your three-year-old. I don’t want to state the obvious, but I didn’t really want to sit next to my three-year-old when flying, so I can only imagine how a stranger would react. But on a more serious note, placing young children in a situation where they would be forced to sit next to a stranger during a flight opens up a lot of risk, wouldn’t you say?

Tang Ming Tung/Getty

Not only are we talking about the possibility of child abuse at the hands of a stranger, but also the sad reality of emotional strain a young child might experience by being separated from their parents. There is also the unlikely, but very real possibility of an emergency evacuation. I’m sorry, if my child is seated away from me and something goes wrong on the plane, I’m not staying seated. I’m going to my child.

End of argument.

And I know other parents would do the exact same thing.

What all of this has resulted in is parents getting assigned seats at the gate, then wandering around the plane begging and pleading with other passengers to change seats so they can sit next to their children. As much as I would like to think most people would be willing to move around to accommodate families, let’s be real. Not everyone gets it, and some people did pay more for assigned seating, and are not willing to give that up without a (somewhat understandable) fight.

More than 128,000 people have signed an online petition Consumer Reports launched in late February calling for the three largest U.S. airlines—American, Delta, and United— to guarantee that children 13 and younger be seated with their families on planes at no additional cost. I think that age should be raised to 16 due to the possibility of child predators, but this is at least a start. The issue is also on the radar of Congress, but it is moving very slowly.

But for right now, unless you pay an additional cost for assigned seating, there is no guarantee you will be seated with your children. Consumer Reports gave these three tips for families traveling without assigned seating.

– Call the airline while booking your seats online. There is no law forcing airlines to seat you next to your family, but the airline agent can make a note with your reservation mentioning that you are traveling with children and this could help you later.

– Get to the gate early. I know with small children this sounds laughable. Last time I flew with my kids, it felt like we got up before the sun was invented and still made it to the gate during the final call for passengers. But, sometimes airlines hold blocks of seats for passengers traveling together, and getting there early increases your chances of being placed in one of those blocks.

– File a complaint. Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel. Start with the airline; it may offer vouchers for future travel for your trouble. You should also file a complaint with the DOT, which says it will continue to monitor the issue and has created a separate complaint category for family seating.

As a father of young children, I must say, this whole situation is nuts. Of course families are going to fly economy because the cost of traveling with children isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy. And it is only safe and logical to allow families with young children to sit together. End of story.

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