Family travel rights in the sky, part 1

We should see this together.

We should see this together.

Our flight back to SFO from Walt Disney World Resort (well, really from MCO) earlier this month was one of the worst family travel experiences in recent memory. I had checked our seat assignments hours before our 9 a.m. departure and the four of us were sitting together—L with me in one row, R with Powerwoman in the row behind.

Then, 90 minutes before our scheduled take-off, the airline split us up, and put R by herself.

Normally something like this would just be an inconvenience. But in the case of our family, it was a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because R is 2.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in. About 90 minutes before we were scheduled to take-off for a 5.5-hour flight back home, United Airlines split up our family and sat the 2-year-old passenger all by her lonesome.

You can imagine my shock when I saw the change. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than the last few weeks, you probably also can picture the outrage. Normally in these types of situations I go all “Johnny Brooklyn” and curse and wail and rant and rave and speak so excitedly little bits of spittle come flying out of my mouth.

This time, however, especially because the kids were RIGHT THERE, I kept my cool, and repeatedly (and respectfully!) requested that the flight attendants put my family back together.

In the end, to the airline’s credit, they managed to get us back to 2-and-2. They didn’t solve the problem until ten minutes before takeoff, but, technically—and to be totally fair—they did ultimately solve the problem.

Still, the entire debacle got me wondering what our rights as family travelers really are.

So I started digging. And I started making phone calls. And I started talking to experts. The reporting effort is still ongoing, but I wanted to report the first part of my findings ASAP. So here goes:

  • Currently there is no federal regulation requiring airlines to keep together families with confirmed seats. I thought for sure the FAA would regulate this. I was wrong; that agency only oversees family travel issues as they pertain to child safety seats. The folks at the Department of Transportation have some guidelines for airlines to follow about the ages of unaccompanied minors, but there is no formal law on the books that they enforce either.
  • In this vacuum of legislation, airlines establish and enforce their own policies about keeping together families. These policies vary widely.
  • United’s formal policy on the subject indicates that the airline will do whatever it can to keep families together. At the same time, the airline has a policy that stipulates no children under the age of 5 are allowed to travel unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. When I pressed a spokesperson to explain how separating a 2-year-old from her family would NOT be in violation of the unaccompanied minor rule, he suggested that because our daughter was ticketed with us, technically this was not a violation of the policy.

Obviously there is much more research to be done. Once I have spoken with every major airline and every major industry organization, I’ll compile my findings into an easy-to-read post. I may also put together an infographic or chart that helps explain these disparate policies.

So far, at this point in my reporting, I know this:  There’s nobody at the national level looking out for us family travelers, and we have very limited recourse when we feel we’ve been wronged.

Personally, I think that needs to change. Quickly. And forever. What’s your take?

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