Consumer groups and Congress tell airlines, “Protect children and sit families together” — why don’t they?
It is the third holiday season since Congress passed the Families Seating Together Act as part of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill. After three years it is time for DOT to follow the will of Congress and write regulations to protect children on planes.
There is no excuse. Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-NY) wants carriers to stop separating parents and their children when seated for flights. Schumer asked the DOT Secretary Elaine Chao to start resolving the issue. Schumer detailed the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, which contained a directive to the Secretary of Transportation to solve this issue.
DOT claims a loophole in the law allows them to do nothing while children sit separated from parents. The wording in the law includes, “If appropriate” regulations should be created. Travelers United helped create the final wording for the bill. Everyone in the room understood that there would be a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). It would be followed by studies from family experts, airlines, psychoanalysts, the FBI, and so on. Then, the appropriate rules would be promulgated.
DOT claims there are not sufficient complaints. A Freedom of information Act (FOIA) request showed that is not true.
DOT simply said there were not sufficient complaints. Initially, Travelers United asked the enforcement division how many complaints were filed. DOT personnel did not produce the complaints records. Finally, Consumer Reports Advocacy filed the FOIA request. After about a year, DOT data, there 136 complaints.
Bill McGee, the Consumer Reports airline specialist, wrote that he is shocked. In a USA Today editorial
I read all 136 complaints, and I’m shocked at DOT’s conclusion. Consider these claims from consumers, and remember — all airline bookings today require passenger dates of birth:
- United knowingly separated families traveling with 1-year-olds, in two cases. One case was on a two-leg international itinerary.
- In seven cases, 2-year-olds were seated separately from their family. Airlines included American, Delta, United and Spirit Airlines.
- Three-year-olds were seated apart from family in three cases,
- A family on American with a 2-year-old and another child who suffers seizures found both kids seated separately. Plus, their car seat was denied on board even with a seat reservation.
- In three cases, the separated children were autistic.
Senator Schumer wrote to the Secretary of Transportation
Senator Schumer’s letter is one of the first from Congress. It asks why DOT is not allowing families to sit together. Here are a series of excerpts. The subheads are added to clarify Sen. Schumer’s letter.
Today parents must pay to be seated with their children
“Every day, parents booking flights are told to pay the airlines for the right to guarantee a seat next to their child. Too often, even when those fees are paid many children under the age of 13 are seated apart from their families. This is simply wrong. …with the holiday travel season upon us, I urge you to establish a policy to ensure that children 13 and under will not be seated apart from their parents on commercial aircraft.
“In recent years, airlines have begun to charge passengers fees to choose their seat assignments. This has had disastrous consequences for families attempting to sit together on their flights.
Even with “guaranteed” seat assignments, parents are separated from children
“Even when families pay to be seated together, they lose their seats. Some of the complaints reveal that their paid seat assignments together were given away. They were re-assigned seats apart from each other as a family. … The list of disturbing complaints goes on, and no doubt there are many more instances that have never been reported to the Department of Transportation.
Congress passes a bill to require DOT to set up a program to allow children to sit with parents
“The FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 directed the Secretary of Transportation to “review and, if appropriate, establish a policy directing all air carriers […] to establish policies that enable a child, who is age 13 or under […] 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.” To date, the Department of Transportation declines to establish such a policy or direct the airlines to establish such a policy, citing a “low number of complaints” for its inaction.
“Complaints numbering 136 are not a “low number.” Even one instance of a young child separated from their family on a commercial flight is unacceptable and, quite frankly, disturbing. Airlines should have a responsibility to put families first over profits and fees, and the Department of Transportation must act now to come up with sensible guidelines.”
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.