When DOT doesn’t follow the law, families and all travelers pay more
Today, in the midst of the biggest family travel season of the year, we look at the airlines’ seat-reservation fees and the fact that the airlines can demand almost $800 in extra fees for a family or four to sit together. However, the buck doesn’t stop with the airlines when it comes to family travel.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is the real culprit here. This executive department has been instructed by Congress to solve this problem through a rulemaking. However, DOT has refused. Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation, has clearly challenged Congress telling them, in effect, that her opinion about whether a rule is needed supersedes any Congressional mandate to change the current costly system.
Family values clearly come second to airline profits with this administration. Sad.
Skyrocketing seat selection fees enrage flyers, enrich airlines
Enraged passengers are starting to make more and more noise about excessive seat-reservation fees. When baggage fees were introduced, Travelers United was the first consumer group to work to stop runaway fees. We failed. And now, as we predicted, seat-reservation fees are becoming the most-complained-about fees. Congress has discussed the situation at length, but airlines have prevailed. And, even when Congress takes a stand, airlines are prevailing with DOT, which refuses to do as they are instructed by Congress with legislation passed by both the Senate and the House and signed by the President.
Airlines like Delta, United and American created no-frills Basic Economy fares for budget sensitive travelers in the past few years, with restrictions including no free advance seat assignments. During booking, they try to get travelers to pay more for a regular economy by touting the perks you get over a basic economy ticket.
Except one of the biggest perks, a seat assignment, now carries a caveat: Fees may apply.
…you don’t have to buy a seat assignment. Skip over those color-coded pricey premium and “preferred” seats and look for free seats during booking if you’re not particular about where you sit. There are usually plenty of free window and aisle seats at the time of booking, often in the back half of the plane, especially if you book tickets in advance. If there aren’t any free seats or all that is left are middle seats, you can select a seat for free during online check-in or at the airport. You might snag your coveted aisle or window seat at that time, or could be stuck in the middle.
You bought your airline ticket, now pay to pick a seat
Travelers United was interviewed for this article. Plus, our president has discussed family seating regularly with DOT, even as late as two weeks ago in DC. The runaway seat-reservation fees are making flying hell for families. Children as young as three years of age can be separated from their families all to make an extra buck for the airlines. One frustrated mother related a story about bringing a diaper bag to a passenger who insisted on not swapping seats to allow the mother to sit with her child. This passenger, upon realizing that changing diapers was more than he was willing to do for his seat, swapped. The airlines have created this problem and the airlines need to fix it.
The best solution is for DOT to do what they should do and create a new rule to allow families to sit together just as Congress has directed.
Airplane seat assignments have gone the way of free checked luggage and in-flight meals, as major airlines shift from selling all-inclusive tickets to an a-la-carte business model, offering seat selection at an added cost to consumers. While airlines reap the benefits, customers say the move creates confusion and unfairly penalizes families with children who want to travel together.
United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines — known as the big three — now offer discounted fares in Basic Economy class that don’t come with seat assignments to compete with low-cost carriers, including Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier airlines, forcing travelers to pay up for seat reservations.
“Airline executives will be very honest. They aren’t offering Basic Economy because they want people to buy Basic Economy. They are offering it because they want you to pay up the higher fare. That’s the whole purpose of the construct,” said Samuel Engel, an airline consultant who leads ICF’s aviation group.
Consumer advocate Charles Leocha equated the airlines’ move to President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border in a blog post titled, “Family separation: It is an airline problem, too.”
How much it costs to select seats on international flights
This seating article, written about 18 months ago after Congress told the DOT to solve the problem of allowing families to sit together on planes, has a list of the current airline policies on reserved seats. It lists those airlines that provide no-cost reservations and those who charge for every seat up until a short time before departure. Unfortunately, DOT has not taken any action. The current administration loudly thumps the tub of “family values,” however does nothing to promote these “values” during airline flights.
In my opinion, seat selection fees are a way for airlines to monetize families’ anxieties about being separated from their children. Not only can these fees add up to hundreds of dollars for families with children on a round-trip itinerary, but it also becomes a safety issue when airlines assign parents seats apart from their children. Doing so makes them unable to fulfill routine parental duties, let alone assist in the event of an emergency.
Thankfully for US-based travelers, these seat fees mostly affect European airlines at this time, and some of them do make exceptions for families traveling with small children. And better yet, the FAA reauthorization bill from 2016 requires airlines to seat passengers 13 and under with an adult on their reservation, at no cost. [Editor’s note: After almost a year and a half, DOT has taken no action. They claim there is no problem with families finding seating together at no cost.]
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. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.