Can Airlines Really Seat Children Away from their Parents?

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Most, if not all, airlines charge extra to choose specific seats. This is a guaranteed way for airlines to make more ancillary revenue. Solo travellers will want to avoid that dreaded middle seat. Couples often want to be seated together. And parents will almost always want to be seated next to their children.

Some airlines provide complimentary seat selection as a benefit for their members with elite status – this is a valuable benefit to be sure. But on low cost carriers, your only option is to pay. Unless you are willing to leave things to chance… since no low cost carrier has figured out how to FORCE you to pay for a seat. (although some airlines manage to come close)

I recently took my three year old daughter on a short getaway. Our airline options were Vueling and Ryanair. No elite status benefits for sure! Ultimately I chose to book our flights with Vueling, but I didn’t pay to select seats for the 40 minute flight. After all, it must be illegal to separate a 3 year-old from her parent or guardian, right?  It turns out that it isn’t…  As I found out when I checked in online for our first flight.

Although being on separate sides of the aisle is hardly a disaster, it still wouldn’t be a very good idea for a child as young as my daughter.

Luckily I am aware of a little travel hack that works on Vueling. You can check-in online as soon as your buy your ticket, but free seat allocation is only possible 7 days in advance of your flight.

However, you do NOT need to accept your first allocation of seats. You can simply cancel the check-in process and try again later. With 7 days to go before our flight, I had substantial margin for error. I could check back every few hours – in the interim somebody else will have checked in online and been allocated the seat(s) I wasn’t interested in. In the worst case scenario, I would just pay for seats 2-3 days before our flight.

Later that evening, I made another attempt.  This time I was happier. So I went ahead and completed the check-in process – allowing me to print out our boarding passes.


So Why Isn’t it Illegal?

I had assumed that it would be illegal to split up parents from young children in this manner.  After all, airlines make a fuss about flight attendants “being there for your safety”.  In an emergency, however, you definitely want to avoid some passengers desperately trying to reach their children rather than the nearest exit.

When Googling the legal situation in Spain, I found out that Ryanair is being taken to court due to deliberately separating families when allocating seats. (which means that there isn’t a clear law banning such actions)

And the situation in the United Kingdom isn’t much better, with the Civil Aviation Authority website saying that “seating of children close by their parents or guardians should be the aim of airline seat allocation procedures”.

Bottom Line

Admittedly I have never put much thought into seat selection before. My elite status with British Airways Executive Club has always allowed me to select my preferred seat(s) on the plane, even when travelling with my no-elite-status partner and daughter.

But with no laws banning the practice, I now know why some airlines separate parents from their children – to extract more ancillary fees from anxious parents who will simply pay up…

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