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As fees for preferred seating have become an industry standard, more families are finding themselves seated apart on flights.

AP file ,

Flying as a family? Seating often adds to anxiety

  • Article by: KATHERINE SHAVER
  • Washington Post
  • January 18, 2013 - 3:49 PM

The stressful quest for seats is one that parents have begun to encounter with increasing frequency in recent years as more airlines have instituted extra charges for “preferred” or “premium” coach seats, leaving fewer free seats together.

For families, the extra preferred-seating fees — most range from $5 to $100 one way for domestic flights — can add hundreds of dollars to the hefty costs of group travel. On some flights, 30 percent to 40 percent of coach seats are now reserved for those willing to pay extra, airline experts say.

Passengers not willing to pay up often are left with middle seats, rows apart. “Everyone who doesn’t want to pay extra is going after more limited inventory,” said Bryan Saltzburg of SeatGuru.com, a division of the TripAdvisor.com.

Oftentimes, to accommodate family members who want to sit together, fellow passengers agree to switch seats or are persuaded to do so by flight attendants. But the uncertainty heightens the anxiety and stress of flying with children.

Airline cost-cutting has led to fewer (and fuller) flights, and finding a spare seat to facilitate a switch has become more difficult. Meanwhile, passengers who are traveling without children and who paid extra for a particular seat can find themselves with two equally unappealing options: Relinquish a premium seat or spend hours babysitting someone else’s cooped-up child.

Families are most likely to be separated when their seats are assigned at the airport, airline officials say. Airline websites that generally sell out seats available at no extra charge often require people to get them at check-in. Passengers who book through some non-airline travel websites also can’t get seats confirmed until check-in.

Airline officials said they use seats that remain unassigned until 24 hours before a flight to re-seat family members together. When that fails, they said, gate agents and flight attendants step in.

“I’ve worked for American Airlines for 20 years, and I’ve never heard of an instance when we haven’t been able to arrange for a parent to sit with their child,” airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.

In a recent website posting titled “Do airlines hate families?” the traveler advocacy group Consumer Travel Alliance called on airlines to waive fees for children 6 and younger to be seated with a parent. The need to switch seats at the last minute to keep families together complicates the check-in and boarding process for all passengers, said the group’s director, Charlie Leocha.

“There’s this period of uncertainty,” Leocha said.

“People are having to barter for seats at the airport. They’re playing seat roulette, which is just not fair to customers.”

© 2014 Star Tribune