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 the family separation of immigrants seeking entry into the U.S. at the border. The media has been howling about the inhumanity of the actions.

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 media has been silent. No major media articles slamming the airlines for anti-family actions. No stories about children as young as three being sexually molested. Just quiet resignation that nothing will change. The Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, has said that it is not appropriate for the government to protect toddlers. Parents must sit separately from their young children, or pay extra.

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 about family outrage in our media.

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 four years since the passage of that bill (PUBLIC LAW 114–190), nothing has been done. 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 requirement 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 subscribeWhy hasn’t DOT put this law into effect?

Perhaps I am naive, but the law is the basic rule of the country. When passed by the House and the Senate and then signed by the President, DOT should enforce it. Why are families still being forced to pay to guarantee that they can sit together? I find this unforgivable.

Today, October 29, 2020, we will meet with DOT’s consumer ombudsman to ask if there has been any progress. There will be a collection of different consumer groups and DOT will ignore us all. I doubt that families will be allowed to sit together by this Secretary of Transporation.

(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. The law is passed, but it is not in effect.

Family separation in the US seems to be normal.

Get refunds in cash when airlines cancel your flightAfter 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 the treatment of immigrant families is routine. Prosecutors and the police in many cases separate children from their parents. It happens when parents or children are arrested and it happens when incarcerated women give birth. It can 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. Even to American citizens.


Parents must beg to sit with their children on flights.

Back to families sitting together on airplanes. This is a cruel form of family separation. Pre-pandemic, it was regularly done on a daily basis on airlines. 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), This 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 an additional $240 per family. If the law was in effect allowing families to sit together without extra fees the cost would be nothing.