Family separation: It is an airline problem, too

Airlines separate families every day on flights. Where is the outrage?

family separationThere is a lesson to be found in the hullabaloo about family separation of immigrants seeking entry into the U.S. at the border. We have learned there has not been unbridled outrage from law-abiding American citizens who face family separation every time they try to fly with their families.

The American people find separating immigrant parents from their young children detestable. Many airlines chimed in announcing their disgust. However. when separating families involves making more money from seat reservation fees, airlines separate children from their parents every day with absolutely no remorse. (Note: Southwest Airlines, unlike the other major airlines, has an established system of allowing families to sit together.)

I know a direct comparison is unfair between immigrant children being taken from their parents and airline passengers being forced to sit separated from each other. But, I still find the airline actions indefensible. And, I am not hearing much family outrage.

Families who want to sit together on flights are facing the need to pay for reserved seats (often more than $100 apiece) to guarantee that they can keep their family together. With so many airlines holding back unreasonable numbers of seats for elite passengers, non-elite passengers believe that they must make a reservation in order to sit with their children. However, there is a law against that. Parents and children 13 years of age and younger are supposed to be able to sit together without paying extra.

There is a law against family separation on planes but it is not enforced.

Unfortunately, after almost two years since the passage of that bill (PUBLIC LAW 114–190), the Department of Transportation (DOT), that is supposed to enforce the law, has not written the regulations that would put the law into effect. The reading of the law doesn’t seem particularly complex or filled with weasel legal words.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall review and, if appropriate, establish a policy directing all air carriers providing scheduled passenger interstate or intrastate air transportation to establish policies that enable a child, who is age 13 or under on the date an applicable flight is scheduled to occur, to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13, to the maximum extent practicable and at no additional cost, except when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch for which additional payment is normally required.
(b) EFFECT ON AIRLINE BOARDING AND SEATING POLICIES.— When considering any new policy under this section, the Secretary shall consider the traditional seating and boarding policies of air carriers providing scheduled passenger interstate or intrastate air transportation and whether those policies generally allow families to sit together.
(c) STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.—Notwithstanding the require- ment in subsection (a), nothing in this section may be construed to allow the Secretary to impose a significant change in the overall seating or boarding policy of an air carrier providing scheduled passenger interstate or intrastate air transportation that has an open or flexible seating policy in place that generally allows adjacent family seating as described in subsection (a).

Click here to subscribeFor the life of me, I cannot understand why DOT has not promulgated rules to put this law into effect. Perhaps I am naive, but the law, when passed by the House and the Senate and then signed by the President, is the basic rule of the country. Why are families still being forced to pay to guarantee that they can sit together? I find this unforgivable.

(Plus, another law that provides refunds of checked-baggage fees to airline passengers who pay for checked luggage only to find it delayed or lost temporarily for more than 12 hours on domestic flights and 15 hours on international flights has not been put into effect either.)

DOT simply is not doing its job and American families may find themselves paying more than $100 extra apiece for the right to sit together on flights. I know no mother or father that wants to have their 8-year-old daughter sitting six rows away next to a stranger. It should be criminal, but though the law is passed it is not in effect.

Family separation in the US seems to be normal.

After seeing the outrage at how immigrant families are treated at our southern border, I would expect that Americans would have the same reaction at having to shell out up to almost $800 extra in order to sit together for a family of four on a flight in the USA. Evidently not. Treating US families worse than those seeking citizenship seems to be normal.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have argued that Americans appalled at the treatment of immigrant families at the border should realize that prosecutors and the police routinely separate children from their parents. It happens when parents or children are arrested, it happens when incarcerated women give birth — it can even be triggered when a pregnant woman fails a mandatory drug test, or when a child skips school. It comes with no warning, sometimes in the middle of the night.


The dance parents have to go through to sit with their children on flights.

Back to families sitting together on airplanes. This is a cruel form of family separation and it is done on a daily basis on airlines with visions of profits dancing in front of the airline-executives’ eyes. In these days of Basic Economy airfares, the problem is exacerbated by shutting families out of the lowest airfare class. All passengers must upgrade to Main Cabin (or the airline’s class beyond Basic Economy), which costs an additional $50-$60 per round trip just to have permission to reserve a seat. That means a family of four is automatically spending $240 per family trip more than they would if the law was in effect allowing families to sit together without extra fees.