Cramped seats and bad food are part and parcel of the modern commercial aviation experience, but another indignity of air travel is, according to Consumer Reports, actually putting passengers at risk.
The non-profit research, media, and advocacy organization is calling on three of the biggest airlines in the country to abolish fare structures that require families to pay extra to sit together. It launched a petition last week that’s already gathered nearly 50,000 signatures, according to USA Today.
The issue here is basic economy, a sub-coach fare class that debuted in the United States when Delta added it in 2012. Basic economy was designed to help larger airlines compete with ultra-low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit. In exchange for sacrificing things like flexible booking and carry-on luggage, passengers can fly at discounted rates.
But among the perks you don’t get with basic economy is seat selection. Depending on the airline, families can pay more for tickets in a higher fare class or pay an additional fee to have neighboring seats assigned for the entire family. Given that fees are charged per passenger, they can add up quickly for families.
If they don’t pay extra, parents are left at the mercy of the algorithm that assigns seats to passengers without them shortly before boarding. And when they are seated apart, kids are more likely to be anxious about flying and parents are more likely to be anxious about not being able to watch over and comfort their kids. Then there are the adults the kids do end up seated next to, strangers who might feel obligated to comfort a scared kid. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
But it’s not just this anxiety. Separating families on flights can also be a safety hazard. The petition argues that in an emergency, having children and their parents together would make things safer for everyone.
“Children need a responsible adult around and whether it’s just so they can go to the bathroom in the middle of the flight or if there’s an emergency, it’s not safe to have a child without somebody there to take care of them,” said Anna Laitin, director of financial policy for Consumer Reports’ advocacy arm, told CNN.
“And no business traveler or solo traveler wants to be put in charge of a 3-year-old they don’t know, and no parent wants to be seated, strapped in unable to move, that far from their child,” she continued.
Last November, Consumer Reports published an investigation that found children younger than two, children on the autism spectrum, and children who suffer from seizures had been separated from their parents on flights. It called on the Department of Transportation to create a policy to prevent this from happening — as it had be instructed to do by Congress — but the DOT refused, citing a low number of complaints.
Given this stalled government solution, Consumer Reports is using a different tact. The hope is that a critical mass of signatures might shame airlines into changing their policies voluntarily.