Congressmen push to make family travel more accessible

Get it together, legislators!

Get it together, legislators!

Every now and again, our elected officials actually do something I can get behind. Case in point: the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which includes a push to make into law new rules that would require airlines to allow families to guarantee seats together on planes.

In other words, the legislation aims to make traveling with children more accessible for everyone.

I don’t just support this because of my involvement with the Family Travel Association (though, I admit, the FTA will be supporting this legislation in a HUGE way). I support the bill because I’ve been separated from my kids on a flight before, and it’s about time we did something to prevent it from happening to other families.

Technically, the bill is H.R. 3334. The formal name for it is the “Families Flying Together Act.” It’s been introduced before. And, much like that first, time, the legislation is being championed by U.S. Representatives Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

H.R. 3334 is expected to be added as an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will consider later this month. If all goes well, both 3334 and the bill itself will be voted into law later this year.

There’s a lot of work to do before then, though. First is convincing lawmakers that this is something which warrants attention. Next is inspiring other traveling parents to get behind the effort as well. To this end, Davis and Nadler have been circulating a letter to their colleagues outlining the merits of their addendum to the big bill. Here’s a (lengthy) snip from that letter:

As airlines change policies and increase fees for a variety of basic services, it is becoming more difficult for families with small children to sit together on commercial flights. There are increasing reports of parents being separated from their children when they arrive to board an aircraft. Often the only ‘recourse’ is to rely on another passenger to voluntarily change seats. This inconvenience for everyone involved is complicated by the fact that a passenger might have to vacate a seat for which they [sic] paid a premium in order to allow a parent to sit next to their [sic] child.

This scenario also has the potential of being unsafe and traumatic for the families involved. It is not in a child’s best interest, nor does it serve the other passengers on board, to allow small children to be seated alone and separated from their parents on a flight. It is simply common sense to ensure a small child does not sit unattended, next to strangers, on an airplane.

H.R. 3334, the Families Flying Together Act, would require each air carrier to establish and make publicly available on their [sic] website a policy ensuring that families purchasing tickets are seated together to the greatest extent practicable. Further, it would also require airlines to notify passengers traveling with small children if seats are not available together at the point of purchase. These common-sense reforms would increase transparency for consumers and vastly improve the flying experiences of families with small children.

Flight passengers deserve predictability and transparency, particularly for something as basic as a seating assignment. H.R. 3334 does so in a way that prioritizes the safety and well-being of small children without being overly burdensome for airlines.

The issue at hand is clear. For the first time in a while, we actually might be able to do something about it. Now it’s time to come together and do something about it. If you want to get involved, call your representative and ask him/her to support H.R. 3334. At the very least, share this post with other traveling parents to raise awareness of this golden opportunity to make a change. Thanks in advance for your support.

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?

Family Travelers to FAA: It’s About F-ing Time

Thankfully, R doesn't need a device to be happy in flight.

Thankfully, R doesn’t need a device to be happy in flight.

Sure, business travelers will insist that they benefit most from the FAA’s announcement today to allow the use of most electronic devices. They’ll say they now can work uninterrupted from the moment they sit down on the plane. That productivity will increase.

In my book, nobody wins more than moms and dads who travel with young kids.

If you’ve ever flown with your little ones, you know that the most difficult parts of every flight with youngsters are the take-off and landing—the parts of the flight that wreak havoc on tiny eardrums. These are the 20 minutes (10 on the front end, 10 on the back end) when electronic devices previously had been banned.

In our family, we have referred to these periods as the “Quiet Zones.” Fittingly, on last week’s flight home from Ireland, L and I had a pointed conversation about why we passengers couldn’t use devices during those stretches. The conversation went something like this.

L: “Daddy, can we please read a Kindle book?”
Me: “We can, honey, but we have to wait until the plane takes off and gets to a certain point in the sky.”
L: “Why?”
Me: “Well, because that’s what the pilot says.”
L: “But why?”
Me: “Because.”
L: “WHY?”
Me: “To be completely honest, honey, I don’t know. The pilot says that’s the way it is on his plane, so we have to follow the rules.”
L: “The pilot’s rules are stupid, Daddy.”

She was right, of course. I’ve always thought the rules were stupid, too.

Now, thankfully, we parents can pull out all the stops to distract our traveling partners. Kindle books. Smartphone games (like this one). Digital doodlers. Even the iPads.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thanks to you, Federal Aviation Administration, for finally ending one of the dumbest and senseless in-flight policies in recent memory. It’s a great day for us family travelers (and all travelers, for that matter). And it’s about f-ing time.

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