Airlines' New Polar Vortex Problem: Angry Parents

On a list of potential baby sitters, strangers on a cross-country flight don’t rank high (though they are free). Still, a lot of parents the past few weeks were left with no other choice. As the polar vortex storms stranded travelers, fliers are complaining about being rebooked in seats separate from their children.

Early this month, Lauren Frasca and her husband, Michael Kleiman, were fairly pleased when, to avoid inclement weather, they were rebooked on a United flight from Los Angeles to New York that was not scheduled to fly into a snowstorm. They were less pleased when they saw that their three tickets—including one for their 20-month-old son, Dexter, and his car seat—were for three separate middle-row seats.

Frasca said United passed the issue from ticketing agents to gate agents and eventually to flight attendants without resolving it. The flight was full, and flight attendants said they couldn’t compel a passenger to give up an aisle or window seat. “We got lucky and somehow got seats together, but obviously it happens, and they don’t care,” Frasca said. “Can you imagine if there is an emergency landing and you have a child sitting alone?”

Frasca posted her story on a parenting message board and was flooded with dozens of similar stories. Indeed, this issue is not new, and most airlines have a number of tools to keep parents from traveling separately from their kids, most notably reservation systems that flag young passengers when tickets are booked.

United spokesman Charlie Hobart says the airline’s rebooking process takes children’s ages into account and new seats also become available when passengers upgrade as the flight is boarding. But carriers are reluctant to compel any passenger with a seat assignment to move elsewhere. “The system is set up to sit people together,” Hobart says. “We do what we can, but when we’re unable to do that, we absolutely make the flight crew aware that there is an unaccompanied minor.”

Hobart notes that passengers may also find seats together on a later flight.

American Airlines takes a similar approach, though it also tries to keep seats near the back of the plane unassigned until the last minute to accommodate families.

“It’s something we deal with every day,” spokesman Matt Miller says. “Our reservations folks make every effort to put families together no matter the circumstance. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible.”

To be sure, everybody loses when snow mixes with planes—perhaps airline employees most of all. And right now, it appears to be a relatively small-scale customer-relations storm, although an airline that refines how it handles rebooking for families—and markets its policy changes—might see a boost in business. At the very least, airlines might make sure to give the kiddos aisle seats.

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