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Airlines' seating policies not family friendly, critics say

Two-year-old Mia Brecher and her father, Jeremy Brecher, make their way through the baggage area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earlier this week. The family was arriving from Cleveland for a vacation. 

Sun Sentinel

Two-year-old Mia Brecher and her father, Jeremy Brecher, make their way through the baggage area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earlier this week. The family was arriving from Cleveland for a vacation. 

If you want to sit next to family or friends the next time you fly, you had better not leave it up to chance at the airport.

With some airlines no longer allowing families with young children to preboard and others putting a premium price on more of their seats in economy, it's getting harder to score seats together without paying extra.

Some fliers say the latest changes in air travel are family unfriendly, as they force travelers on a budget to sit aisles apart if they can't afford to fork out extra for advance seat assignments.

As Americans prepare to travel during the peak summer travel period, some could be in for a surprise if they haven't flown in a while.

Major airlines, including American and Delta, have added more legroom to certain seats and are charging extra to passengers who want to reserve them early.

Many times, these are the only seats available when purchasing a ticket close to your travel dates, as airlines have already blocked seats for elite-status and higher-paying customers.

The seat-selection process also has become less transparent, experts say. Seat fees can range from $4 to $200 one way, depending on the airline, benefits and the destination.

"The airlines are trying to get people to buy the premium seats," George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com said. "They're selling scarcity and position."

Hobica advises travelers to bring a few Starbucks gift cards along to bribe fellow fliers into switching seats or to offer to buy them a drink so that family members can sit together.

Earlier this year, United Airlines ended a six-month trial that allowed families with children to board flights before the general boarding process, spokesman Charles Hobart said.

That move slowed boarding, so United ended the experiment. Families with children now board in their respective ticket groups, he said.

"We found that's the most efficient way to get all of our customers, including families with children, on board in a timely manner," Hobart said.

Last month, Kaja Meade, a New York mother of a 9-month-old, rallied nearly 39,000 supporters to protest United's decision on Change.org.

"This is another airline policy that's bad for travelers, and I'm concerned that others may follow United's lead," Meade said. "Like many other parents, I rely on preboarding as part of my travel plan. It's not an amenity; it's a necessary service."

Families traveling on American Airlines with small children will be at the mercy of check-in and gate agents at the airport if seat assignments aren't secured in advance.

"We do not have a hard-and-fast rule about calling families to board," spokesman Ed Martelle said. "We give the gate agents leeway to use their discretion given circumstances at the gate."

Some airlines do extend preboarding courtesies to families.

Southwest allows families with children younger than 5 years old to board for free after the A boarding group, spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said.

Airlines' seating policies not family friendly, critics say 07/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 6, 2012 11:52pm]
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