Vacationing-hungry families, (still) low oil prices and an overall strong demand for air travel are just a few of the reasons industry trade group Airlines for America expects a record number of passengers (234.1 million) to travel worldwide on U.S. airlines this season.
That’s good news for airlines, but full planes and the extra fees many airlines charge for pres-electing a seat means families may have trouble getting seated together on airplanes.
And it means it may be as likely for a business flyer to have a cranky kid as a seatmate this summer as a networking-worthy company CEO.
A families-flying-together rule that was part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2016 was supposed to make it mandatory for airlines to seat families together without charging extra fees, but “The rulemaking for this law has never taken place,” said Charles Leocha, co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United.
“The Obama administration dragged its feet, despite pleadings by some consumer groups, and the current administration still doesn’t have the rulemaking personnel in place at the Department of Transportation,” said Leocha.
So families flying this summer “are still on their own,” said Suzanne Kelleher, a family travel expert at Tripsavvy.com, although some airlines say their go out of their way to try to seat families together.
Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t have assigned seats, gives families traveling with children six years or younger a head start in the boarding process, allowing them to board before the “B” boarding group, which usually insures families can get seats together.
“American Airlines’ reservations system checks for families traveling with children 13 and under a few days before the flight and seats each child with an adult,” said airline spokesperson Ross Feinstein, “If the automated system doesn’t find adjacent seats for families, our agents will assist families at the gate.”
At United Airlines, “flight attendants and agents work to keep families seated together and will ask customers onboard to move seats to accommodate families,” said United spokesperson Charles Hobart.
If preassigned seats haven’t been secured, “Check in online 24 hours before your flight, when you should be able to see your seat assignments,” says family travel expert Kelleher, “If you see that your seats are not together, call your airline’s customer service center.”
And if sitting together as a family is a priority, “It can be worth it to shell out the extra cost for ‘premium seats’ to make sure to get seats together,” she said.
Kids flying solo
Not all families fly together during the summer; thousands of must kids fly alone to camp, to grandma’s house or between divorced parents.
Each airline has its own set of rules, rates and programs for unaccompanied minors – UMs – so it is important to do some research before purchasing a ticket.
For example, some airlines require that UMs fly only direct or nonstop flights and never on a connecting flight at the end of the day. Others limit the number of unaccompanied minors that can be booked on each flight or decline to carry UMs during inclement weather, when delays and re-routings are common. Some airlines will provide a special meal for kids, while others make a point of reminding parents to pack sandwiches and snacks for their kids.
Fee-wise, Alaska Airlines offers mandatory unaccompnaied minor service for kids age 5 to 12 and optional UM service for kids 13 to 17 on both domestic and international flights. The cost is $25 each way for direct flights and $50 each way for a one-way trip with connecting flights.
The fee for UMs age 5 through 11 on Southwest Airlines is $50 each way.
Both American Airlines and Delta Airlines charge $150 a one-way fee for unaccompanied minors 5-14 years of age. American will allow two more UMs from the same family to fly together for that fee; Delta will charge only one fee for up to four children traveling together.
“For kids flying on their own as unaccompanied minors, the most important thing is to make sure they are prepared for the trip,” says Kelleher, “Take stock of a child’s maturity, go over the rules about what to do in various situations such as delays or other changes and make sure they have a smartphone so they can communicate with trusted adults at the departure and arrival airports.”
Avoiding kids on planes
Business travelers know there’s no sure-fire way to avoid getting seated next to a kid on an airplane, but there are some ways to improve the chances of getting some kid-free peace and quiet.
A few international airlines have designated kid-free zones on their planes. Singapore’s Scoot Airlines has a ScootinSilence economy cabin zone that bars passengers under 12 years of age, while only passengers 10 years of age and older are permitted to be seated in Quiet Zone on AirAsiaX flights.
“For business travelers who are serious about being productive on flights, it’s well worth the cost to upgrade to business or first class,” said Karl Rosander, founder and CEO of podcast platform Acast. The limited number of seats lowers, but doesn’t eliminate, the chances of being seated near a family with small children, said Rosander, “But I also never board a plane without noise canceling headphones.”
(A slightly different version of my story about flying with – or without – kids this summer first appeared on CNBC.)