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Ed Perkins on Travel: Seat families together, airlines
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Ed Perkins on Travel: Seat families together, airlines

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Family groups flying together should not have to pay extra seat-selection fees to be assured of sitting together. That relatively simple and obvious proposition has nevertheless been ignored by airlines and the Department of Transportation (DoT), so travelers have turned to Congress for relief. The new "Fly Together Act" proposal in the Senate parallels an earlier companion bill in the House. Both address an obvious consumer pain point.

Seating family groups together is especially important for families with children, under the age of 12 or so, who might need constant attention and supervision. These families should remain together without having to pay $10 each or more to guarantee adjacent seats. On the other hand, this isn't a rock-hard principle: I have no sympathy for adult couples who say their trip was "ruined" because they couldn't sit together on a five-hour flight.

Family seating is often a benefit to other travelers, too. I know that if I had arranged an aisle or window seat assignment, I wouldn't want to have the adjacent middle occupied by a small child who is isolated from his/her parents. But I also wouldn't like to shamed into moving to a middle seat to accommodate the family's needs.

To be fair, airlines often try to fix obvious family seating problems on an ad-hoc basis. During boarding, cabin attendants ask for volunteers to switch seats so as to accommodate families. And this often works—but it adds confusion and delays the boarding process.

This bill is yet another illustration of how brazenly airlines refuse to acknowledge and address consumer pain points. Their approach follows a regular pattern:

1. Ignore pain points and obvious consumer abuses as long as possible.

2. When consumer resistance grows to be substantial, promise "we don't need regulation; we can fix this on our own."

3. Continue to ignore the problem.

4. When consumers, fed up with lack of action, turn to the Department of Transportation for relief, oppose any DoT proposals to solve the problem.

5. If DoT does nothing, continue to ignore the problem.

6. When consumers, in desperation turn to Congress for relief, lobby hard against any proposed legislative solution.

7. If either DoT or Congress actually does impose a solution, kvetch about "excessive regulation."

Also to be fair, solutions imposed by DoT or legislation often result in unintended consequences—sometimes, consequences that airlines know and warn about. That's why, to an outside observer, the airlines' "ignore it and it will go away" strategy seems so counterproductive. They also often counter with a claim that they do, in fact, offer options that overcome the complaint. But that claim channels Marie Antoinette: Those problem-free service products come at staggering fares that most families couldn't begin to afford.

Regardless of how obvious the requirement, the Fly Together Act faces an uncertain future. Given today's political environment and the urgent need to address more pressing matters, I'm doubtful that this bill will be voted on, much less passed, during the current situation.

And family seating isn't the only rampant consumer abuse in the travel industry. Among others, I'd nominate deceptive hotel pricing as a top issue: The practice of so many hotels to carve out part of the true rate, omit it from initial rate postings and advertisements, and add it back in later as a mandatory fee called a "resort" fee, a "facility" fee, and now even a "COVID-19 fee." Some restaurants are playing similar games with menu prices.

Another important abuse is requiring air travelers to forfeit their normal rights to legal redress when they buy tickets. Many contracts of carriage specify that ticket buyers waive their rights to sue and airline in court and to participate in class-action suits.

Immediate action on the Fly Together Act and other consumer protection legislation is unlikely this year. But there's an election in the offing. I don't believe that family seating and other consumer abuses are partisan issues. So if you agree, press any House or Senate candidates of either party to promise support for the Fly Together Ace and other pro-consumer legislation.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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