A mother and her 2-year-old daughter were close, but not quite. The pair was seated across the aisle from each other despite American Airlines’ policy guaranteeing all families will sit together for free on all its flights.
To avoid having her toddler sitting next to a stranger on her flight on Aug. 17, passenger Sara Kloek was told to pay extra for upgraded seats or have the flight attendants work it out at the airport.
A few months prior, Kloek booked tickets for her, her husband and their young daughter on an American Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota to visit her family. During booking, there weren’t any free seats next to each other left, only upgraded Main Cabin Extra seats for purchase.
She figured it wasn’t necessary to pay extra for seats because she had seen American’s announcement in March that it was the first airline to guarantee children under the age of 14 and an accompanying adult would be seated together without a fee.
“American Airlines lets families sit together at no additional cost,” the airline said in a statement in February and on Wednesday in response to Kloek’s incident. “We are proud to offer industry leading, customer-friendly policies that ensure a positive travel experience for families traveling together. Our current policies allow families to sit together without having to pay more, and we are pleased to update our Customer Service Plan to provide additional clarity to families traveling with us.”
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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg even praised the airline on Twitter in February.
“Oh, that’s great, that seems to be a pro-family sort of thing,” Kloek told USA TODAY she imagined the process would go. “This isn’t going to be a big deal, they’ll just put me by her or my husband by her.”
The day before departure, she noticed AA had finally assigned the family seats: Kloek and her daughter were given two seats across the aisle from each other, and her husband was seven rows behind them. “I saw the aisle seats and decided that’s going to be a problem.”
Not only did Kloek not want her child next to someone else but her daughter also flies in a car seat. By American Airlines’ policy, a car seat should only be used in a window seat for safety reasons. “If an unoccupied, adjoining seat is not available, the gate agent will check the safety seat to your final destination,” the airline’s website reads.
Kloek reached out to the airline via its app chat function the day before her flight but was told she could pay $61 each for two Main Cabin extra seats together or “let our flight attendants take care of this matter,” according to chat screenshots provided by Kloek.
“I didn’t think that was in the spirit of what those commitments were,” Kloek said.
In the chat, the airline told her “the standard free seats are already assigned to other passengers,” and “the power to reassign is with the airport and flight attendant.”
The best bet was “that passengers don’t proceed with the flight,” which would clear up seats.
“I wouldn’t have known if I waited until I got to the airport and I don’t want to chance it if I’m traveling with a 2-year-old,” she said, adding that it also felt like a burden to put on the flight attendants.
She tweeted a picture of the seat map to American Airlines on Wednesday and the airline privately messaged her to tell her they reassigned her and her daughter to adjacent window and aisle seats.
“It felt like the effort was on me as a passenger,” she said.
How to ensure your family is seated together
An American Airlines spokesperson told USA TODAY that the automatic booking process seats families next together and it’s unlikely for it to not happen. Typically, the last row or two on the plane are reserved so families can be seated together.
On the airline’s website, it says that the family seating guarantee has to meet certain conditions, such as “adjacent seats are available in the same class of service your child is ticketed at the time of booking,” which wasn’t the case during Kloek’s booking.
“If these conditions aren’t met, we will still try to seat children adjacent to an accompanying adult,” AA’s website reads.
According to the airline, here are a few recommendations to do during booking so that your family is seated together:
- Book as early as possible so there are more available free seats.
- Skip seat assignments when booking and AA’s system will detect that you’re a family flying together and assign your seats together a few days after booking.
- If you do book through separate reservations, call AA’s Reservations line so they can handle the seat assignments.
Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected]