Can airlines really seat a kid away from their parents?

Airlines say they have a policy to ensure kids sit with their parents on flights. So why do parents say they've been forced to pay extra to make sure it happens?

Photo: iStockphoto

Toronto mom Emily Jackson doesn’t like to leave much to chance when travelling with her husband, Todd, and their two young boys. So, two years ago, when booking one of their many flights to Vancouver to visit Todd’s family, she paid the usual extra $100, plus tax, per ticket to reserve four adjacent seats with extra leg room.

“I always pay for reserved seating months in advance,” says Jackson, whose sons were two and four at the time. “I want to be guaranteed that I will sit with my children.”

A week or two before the flight, Jackson received word from Air Canada that their scheduled plane was being swapped with another aircraft. While there was no mention of a seating change, Jackson’s ‘spidey senses’ were tingling. “I decided to check our seat reservations just in case,” she says.

Her two-year-old and four-year-old were still booked in the reserved seats up front, but Jackson and her husband had been moved to separate rows at the back of the plane. She immediately called the airline and, after about an hour on hold, was told by an Air Canada customer service representative that while the airline tries to keep families together, they can’t guarantee it, even with reserved seats.

“I asked how a two-year-old child is supposed to manage … away from their caregiver,” she recalls. “They didn’t have an answer.”

Stories like this of parents being separated from their kids on Canadian flights—and air carriers washing their hands of responsibility to keep families together—are all too common. It’s just one more thing for parents to worry about when they fly, and some, like Jackson, feel they need to pay a premium for reserved seating to set their minds at ease, even if it adds a hefty sum to the already high cost of air travel. (Although it seems reserved seating may not be foolproof, either, as Jackson’s story illustrates.)

“I would have paid extra if that had been an option,” says Maria Luisa Willan, who was seated separately from her nine-year-old son and 77-year-old mother on an Air Canada flight to Toronto from Costa Rica in July. It was a connecting flight from Nicaragua, where she went to bring her ill mother, who suffers from a heart condition, back home to Canada to look after her.

A woman with her toddler in her arms walking down a plane aisle Tips to survive flying with a toddlerBut because the first leg of the journey was with a different carrier, Panama’s Copa Airlines, Air Canada told her she couldn’t check-in to its connecting flight 24 hours in advance. “They said it’s their system allocating the seats, and they have no control over it,” says Willan, adding that there were eight other families on that flight who were also upset about being seated apart. “You know what they told me? They said, ‘Well, you’re on the same plane.’ That answer is ridiculous.”

There are currently no national guidelines on how Canadian airlines should deal with seating of children on flights. That will change on December 15, 2019, when Phase 2 of the federal government’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations comes into effect. Under these new rules, airlines will have to help seat children under the age of 14 close to their parent, guardian or tutor, at no extra cost and at the earliest opportunity. How close depends on the age of the child:

Under the age of 5: In a seat beside the parent, guardian or tutor.
Aged 5 to 11: In the same row and separated by no more than one seat.
Aged 12 or 13: Separated by no more than a row.

A closer inspection of the regulations, however, suggests that the rules might not have the teeth parents are hoping for. Airlines are required to help make these seating arrangements, but not necessarily required to act. According to the Canadian Transportation Agency, an airline could assign a seat to the child before or at check-in or, if that’s not possible, it must ask for volunteers to change seats at the time of boarding and, if needed, again prior to take-off.

But here’s the kicker: Airlines are not required to move other passengers against their will if there are no volunteers.

For its part, Air Canada says its current policy is “to seat young children together with a parent or guardian at no additional charge.” But that’s the exact opposite of what the airline’s customer service rep told Jackson: that Air Canada had no policy to keep caregivers with their children, regardless of how young. “We carry hundreds if not thousands of families every day and the Canadian Transportation Agency has rated our process for seating children together with their parents/guardians as best practice in the Canadian industry,” spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told Today’s Parent in a written statement.

In our broad investigation, however, Air Canada was the only airline that came up time and time again as having created difficulties in seating for parents and their children. The “at no additional charge” part of the airline’s stated policy doesn’t mesh with some parents’ experiences, either.

Take the case of Stephanie and Scott (who didn’t want to give their last names) and their daughter, now six, who were given seats in three different parts of the plane on a flight from Toronto to Moncton, NB two years ago. “I didn’t want to pay $35 per person per seat to reserve our spots,” says Stephanie, who instead arrived at the airport early to check-in. “I asked if at least one of us could be moved beside our daughter, who was four at the time, and they said no because we hadn’t paid to reserve our seats.”

Once they got to the gate, a flight attendant did stand up on a chair to ask if anyone would be willing to switch seats, but only one person volunteered and there was another family who came to the gate first who got the swap. In the end, the flight attendants themselves switched seats, so the family could stay together at the back of the plane where the on-flight staff normally sit.

But this took place after Stephanie and Scott spent a couple of hours preparing their anxious four-year-old for the possibility she’d be sitting next to a stranger. “She had a million questions—will I be beside a man or lady, will they call your name if you can’t hear me,” says Stephanie. “Because of customer privacy, they wouldn’t even tell us who she would have been seated with. At least then we could have gone up to the person at the gate and introduced ourselves.”

And while they did get to sit together on the flight, being at the very back of the plane with a preschooler wasn’t ideal, especially when the washroom was at the front. “We had to run up there five times. And we were the last ones to get off the plane, which was getting pretty hot,” says Stephanie.

When she later called Air Canada to voice her concerns, they again told her that she had the option to book her seats ahead of time, for an extra fee. “After years of flying with Air Canada, I told them we’d now be going with Porter,” she says. “They just said, ‘We’re sorry to hear that.’ It was the end of the conversation and I never heard from them again.”

She’s made good on her promise to fly with Porter, which she finds much more helpful with seating arrangements. “If I skip the step to book seats online and call in, they waive the seat reservation fee and seat us together. I’ve done it twice now,” says Stephanie, who also has a one-year-old son with swallowing difficulties, so she won’t risk being separated from him. “He can choke sometimes. It’s not fair to put that on a stranger,” she adds.

Willan, who has a younger son with autism, also finds other airlines to be more accommodating in regards to seating. “I travel often with WestJet and other airlines and this is not an issue. If there’s a problem, you talk to them and they fix it,” she says. But she is concerned that with the new guidelines coming into effect in December, there may be occasions when she’s not seated beside her special-needs son, since he’s older than five. “Even if he’s 12, autism doesn’t go away. It’s not like a cold,” she says. “He may need someone to help him his whole life.”

While there’s nothing in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations that address children with special needs, there will be some further accommodations in the new Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR), which take effect on June 25, 2020, for those who have a disability—and appropriate documentation to prove it—to sit beside a support person.

As for Jackson, after much insistence on her part, she did get Air Canada to move her and Todd back to the preferred seating they had reserved beside their kids. But she feels she shouldn’t have to pay $400, plus tax, for reserved seats, and then have to jump through hoops on top of that to get those reservations honoured.

“It should be without question that a parent or caregiver will be seated with their child who can’t fasten their seatbelts, reach the overhead compartment to get necessities from their bags, feed themselves, use the washroom alone or even just know to stay in their seats when required,” she says. “It’s a huge safety issue and a stranger cannot be expected to take over these responsibilities. How can any airline think this is acceptable?”

Despite the many instances of parents being separated from their kids on flights, there are a few things you can do to decrease the likelihood of this happening to you and your tot.

Call instead of going online. It may take a little longer than booking online, but speaking with a representative at the time of booking and ensuring the airline is aware of your kids’ ages and your concerns can make a difference. At the very least, you may find out that the airline can’t guarantee you seats together, which could be an incentive to find another carrier.

Book through a travel agent. They may not be as popular as they used to be, but your trusty travel agent can work wonders with seating because they have pre-existing relationships with the airline booking reps. Stephanie and her family are going to a destination wedding in Cuba in November, and the travel agent they used not only got Air Transat to seat them all together, but also got the airline to waive the $100 fee it normally charges for this perk.

Double check your reservations. Even if you’ve paid a premium to reserve seats, be sure to check that the airline hasn’t changed those seats a week out from your flight. As Jackson found out, a switch in aircraft could derail your reservations, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do much about fixing it if you find out same day. “It would have been a disaster if I had only realized the change on the day of the flight at the airport,” she says.

Lodge a complaint. After Phase 2 of the federal government’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations comes into effect on December 15, 2019, airlines that do not follow the regulations are subject to penalties of up to $25,000 for each infraction. If you feel an airline has not applied the regulations, you can file a complaint with the CTA, which will try to resolve the matter quickly and informally through facilitation and/or mediation. If that doesn’t help, you can submit an application to the CTA as part of the adjudication process, which is a court-like procedure.

Read more:
11 ways to make sure your baby sleeps well while on vacation
6 ways to help your kid deal with jet lag

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