0 min left

Shame on Airlines for Separating Parents and Children

Since the introduction and proliferation of change fees for seat selections, it has become increasingly difficult and expensive for families to ensure they are all seated together when flying. The situation adds additional stress to parents, imposes safety concerns for kids, and has made travel a nightmare for families who are forced to sit rows apart from each other. But, despite complaints to the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) about this issue, it does not look like things are going to change anytime soon.

The Trouble With Separating Families

As of late 2019, there have been over 130 complaints to the DOT about the separation of families on aircraft. Many reports outlined events in which 3-year-olds, children with autism, and children who suffer from seizures were separated from their parents. Although the thought of a child with special needs sitting alone without a trusted guardian is concerning enough, there is still the very real risk of sexual assault or the possibility of an inflight emergency, which a child will likely not know how to handle.

According to an FBI investigation, sexual assault on aircraft has occurred to children as young as 8 years old. Furthermore, children trying to find their parents before exiting an aircraft during an emergency pose a safety risk to other passengers.

The Less Than 1%

Back in 2016, in an attempt to address this problem, Congress proposed the Families Flying Together Act. But the legislation was never passed and the DOT deemed it unnecessary, saying that less than 1% of consumer complaints involve family seating. Personally, I think the risk of sexual assault on children seems like a big enough issue to impose legislation.

Canada’s Solid Start

While there doesn’t seem to be any further movement on this issue in the United States, Canada enacted a new law–Phase 2 of its Air Passenger Protection Regulation–in December 2019 that requires airlines to help seat parents and children under the age of 14 close together at no additional cost. How far families can be separated 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.

Although this new policy is a step in the right direction, it is not a cure-all. Airlines must assign seats according to the above parameters. However, if a family is not sitting together at check-in, the airline is not required to find them seats together. They must ask for volunteers to switch places, but if they cannot find any, they cannot force any passenger to move.

Airline Policy

Many airline policies state something along the lines of, “we will seat children with their parent or guardian at no additional charge” or “seating families together is a priority,” but then force them to pay for seats together anyway.

For example, a couple flying on Air Canada was split up from their 4-year-old daughter, but when they asked the customer service representative about the issue, they were told that they could not do anything about it because they had not paid to reserve their seats. They even refused to move one parent next to the child.

Call me sensitive, but it is ridiculous that airlines are so hung up on profit from seat selection that they completely ignore the fact that a 4-year-old should not be sitting alone.

Tips to Avoid Being Separated

Although the DOT has not implemented any laws that prevent the separation of parents and children on aircraft, they have provided an extensive list of tips to help mitigate the possibility of it happening.
  • Read the Airline’s Seating Policy. Every airline in the United States outlines this on their website, so read it before you book your tickets. For low-cost carriers such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant, or basic economy on major airlines, you will probably have to reserve seats for a fee ahead of time.
  • Book early. The earlier you book, the more likely there will be enough seats available together for your entire family.
  • Book families on the same reservation. Airlines assume that multiple people booking on the same reservation will want to sit together, so it is more likely you will be seated as so. Furthermore, priority is given to parents with children during seat re-assignments.
  • Contact the airline directly. If your family was separated or you’re worried about the status of your seats, call the airline directly, explain your concern about sitting away from your child, and ask them if there is any way to accommodate your needs. It is better to do this in advance where they may be plenty of unassigned seats available rather than at check-in.
  • Preboard in the family line. When flying Southwest, ensure you get to the gate early so you can pre-board with families, especially since the airline practices and open-seating policy. On airlines with assigned seats, boarding early can give you more time to discuss seat changes with the flight attendants or other passengers.
  • Pay for your seats. This is obviously the last option families want to choose, but if you do not trust the airlines to put you and your children together, then it may be worth the peace of mind to pay for your seats in advance.

The DOT has put together “Tips for Families” guides for most U.S. airlines on its website:


Do you think this is a big enough risk to warrant regulation? Let us know in the forums!

jamesteroh March 5, 2020

Then don’t buy cheap basic seats if you want to sot together. I want an assigned seat and not a middle seat at the back of the bus so i don’t buy basic economy. It’s unfair to ask people who aren’t tightwads and didn’t buy economy comfort to move seats so someone paying a cheaper fare can sit with their kids. Easy solution for an airline is to refuse to sell those seats to anyone under 13 but then the parents will whine about not being able to buy the cheapest ticket.

soundaround February 26, 2020

So many people here seem to hate kids and families. "I don't want to sit next to a kid." "Parents and kids are getting special treatment." "Having kids is optional." Man, talk about entitled attitudes. What the actual F.

darknstarry February 24, 2020

I perfectly agree that someone with kids shouldn't get SPECIAL seating preferences. But I ask those you with the negative judgment filled responses: Do you have kids? Let me know why you are wrong: I can't leave my child 'safely' in the car while I run into a gas station. Or safely in their crib while I go for a walk down the street. Why? Because I am ultimately responsible for their care and society has deemed it unacceptable to leave them unprotected on their own. It's reasonable to expect ANY business to have a child to be seated by at least one parent. If that's in the back of the plane, fine. As others have pointed out it is unfair to expect special seating if you don't pay for it. Truly, I don't see why this should even be an issue needed to discuss. It's absolutely bad business and a liability for a business to separate children from their parents. Think your ticket prices are subsidizing theirs? Wait until something bad happens and then the airlines raise prices after getting sued for X Million/ Billion dollars. One other point. Our society values having children whether you like it or not. You don't like that? too bad. (Translation to your language: Too bad, move to China. They have still have some of the strictest laws on having children.) Now I'm going to go finish my taxes and get my extra refund thanks to the Child Tax Credit.

jrpallante February 24, 2020

Since some passengers refuse to read the terms of their fare, the airlines should simply prohibit BE bookings for groups that contain anybody under 12 years old.

Taylor Rains February 23, 2020

Hi CEB, I welcome discussion and criticism on all my writing (I guess I set myself up for that by being a writer). I’m sorry if my article seemed entitled, but it was not meant to. I gave my opinion on the matter. Of course I think it’s wrong for parents to play the system, such as buying an economy plus seat for the child and only basic economy for themselves, and then demanding they get an upgrade to sit with their child. I stand by you on that, but the name-calling in comments are not productive (although I have appreciated your insight over the months). I’m happy to speak with you about this in a respectful way if you’d like. Again, I apologize if it seemed whitty or entitled - I don’t try to anger you guys, I just want to spark interest and discussion, even if I don’t have a popular opinion.