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Airlines Are Charging Parents Extra to Sit Next to Their Kids

And the government won't do anything about it.

The indignities of air travel are so ubiquitous that airplane humor has become a reviled genre. Many of them take the form of fees, money charged to carry-on or check a bag, gain a few extra inches of leg room, use the internet, or access any of the other small comforts that make flights more bearable.

But there’s an even more onerous fee, one that crosses the line from cynical cash grab to real injustice, that only affects parents.

We’re talking about airlines that charge parents extra to ensure that they sit next to their children. Put another way, massive corporations can make parents pay to be with their kids in what’s often an unfamiliar, scary situation. It’s akin to a hostage situation.

Consumer Reports requested and reviewed the 136 complaints regarding this issue filed with the Department of Transportation between March 2016 and November 2018. Of course, not every parent who faces this indignity files a complaint, but what the magazine found is still sobering.

In a 2016 law, Congress instructed the DOT to establish a policy that requires airlines to sit children under 14 next to an accompanying older family member “to the maximum extent practicable and at no additional cost” within the same cabin class “if appropriate.”

The DOT, citing a low number of complaints, decided not to establish a policy. This is dumb and bad.

Airlines still regularly impose seat change fees for kids, leaving parents, particularly those in Basic Economy, sitting far from their kids. More than one complaint reviewed by Consume Reports involved a child less than two years old and children on the autism spectrum and those who suffer seizures.

Then there’s the simple fact that any kid sitting away from their parent is insane. Both parties are likely to be more stressed—what you don’t want people on a plane to be—with potential long-term, traumatic consequences.

Parents unwilling or unable to pay seat change fees for their kids have been forced to beg other passengers to switch seats, an action that resulted in some being removed from plans, sit with kids over 2 in their laps (in violation of FAA rules), and even completely change flights, costing thousands of dollars in at least two cases.

The DOT’s argument is a tacit acknowledgment that it’s fine for parents to be put in situations like this sometimes. It’s not, and the DOT should take action to make sure the number of parents forced to pay to sit next to their young children on a plane is zero.