Q: I recently flew from Dallas to Paris on American Airlines with my mother, who uses a wheelchair.
American Airlines usually allows me to sit with her. But on this flight, the airline gave us separate seats. I contacted the airline when we arrived in Paris and asked to be seated next to her. A representative helped me get two seats next to each other.
When I returned to the States, I found an $85 charge for the assigned seat. I didn’t authorize this charge.
American Airlines won’t refund the fee, saying that it costs more for “preferred” seating in economy class. I’ve tried numerous times to get a refund, but the airline refuses.
A: American Airlines shouldn’t have separated you from your mother. And it definitely shouldn’t have charged you to sit with her on your return trip.
So why did it? In a word: money. American, like most other major carriers, charges for assigned seating. If you want a confirmed seat assignment before your flight, you’ll need to pay for it.
“At the time of your request, all adjacent seating was either reserved for other customers, ‘blocked’ to allow our airport personnel to handle unexpected seating issues that may arise on the day of departure, or they were part of our Main Cabin Extra or Preferred Seats travel options,” an American representative explained in an e-mail to you.
Maybe. But still, separating you from your mother — who was in a wheelchair — seems coldhearted. American has a Special Assistance department that you could have contacted before your departure. They could have made arrangements to have you sit next to your mother.
You shouldn’t have assumed that American would let you sit with your mother. We live in a time when children are separated from their parents, on a plane and off, so it’s important not to take anything for granted. Interestingly, Congress passed legislation to keep families together on planes, but the Department of Transportation hasn’t created a regulation, which is necessary. So, for now, airlines can still separate families.
You handled this case by the book. You sent a brief, polite e-mail to American, asking for a refund. You appealed to an executive. (I list the contacts for the American executives on my consumer-advocacy site, elliott.org). The airline didn’t move.
Although American is correctly following its policy, it is also doing something morally questionable. The airline didn’t just separate you from your mother, but from a parent who needed special care. That’s cruel.
I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. It noted it has “internal processes” in place to assist families in obtaining seating together, even if they didn’t buy preferred seats. American refunded you the $85 fee.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at email@example.com.