For parents flying with toddlers, the choice seems to be: pay extra for seat assignments, or risk being separated from your child. It shouldn’t be this way.
Flying with a toddler is stressful in the best of times, and flying alone with one ramps that up exponentially. Still, you don’t expect to print out your boarding passes the evening before a Toronto-to-Vancouver flight only to discover Air Canada has seated your two-year-old all by himself in a middle seat of an emergency exit row while you are on the other side of the plane and a row back.
You also don’t expect that when you call frantically—and then wait impatiently for one hour and six full minutes on hold listening to Air Canada’s interminable recorded boast about how they’ve been voted The! Best! Airline! In! North America!—for the reservation agent to say, sorry, she cannot help you.
And you certainly don’t expect—though at this point maybe you should—that the agent will subsequently inform you that it’s your own fault for not paying an extra $124 ($31 per passenger each way) to select your seats early and ensure that you and your two-year-old will be seated together.
With such a seemingly outrageous oversight on the part of the airline—who have all passenger birthdates on record, not to mention knowing full well who bought “companion” tickets together—you might think that, when you asked the powerless reservation agent to get their supervisor on the phone, they would do so. Or at least that said supervisor would call you back within the two-hour window that was promised.
But you would be wrong. Air Canada, at least in this instance, would not call you back at all.
Their represtentatives would, however, harangue you at the airport for not pre-printing your boarding passes—which you would not have done because, clearly, these seats would have to be changed—and then you would discover that the check-in agent is just as powerless as the reservation agent, despite the latter’s claim she couldn’t fix your solo-toddler situation, because now the gate staff were in control of the seats.
The check-in agent would assure you the gate agent would sort this out, passing the buck as well as your boarding passes—including your toddler’s emergency exit-row middle seat across the plane from your own—and, again, tell you that, in the future, you should have paid to pre-select your seats and avoid this situation.
You would go to the gate and wait for someone to show up, then hand over your tickets and wait some more. The gate agent would give you exasperated looks when you wander into their sightline after they start loading the plane, not just with the “premium” customers, but everyone. Eventually, not long after your two-year-old tells the gate agent, with somewhat adorable exasperation, “just find a seat already,” the two of you would be reassigned to that very back row of non-reclining seats, the ones marked “crew only” (but not jump seats) and all would be relatively right with the world.
But it shouldn’t have to be like this—and from a non-scientific poll of people who chimed in during my frustrated live-tweeting/Facebooking of this ridiculous situation, not to mention online message boards, it happens a fair bit.
Now, my experience obviously has nothing on this week’s viral news story of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partner United “losing” a 10-year-old unaccompanied girl because her paid-for airline escort “forgot to show up”—an incident compounded by the fact that no one at United, from negligent flight attendants to compassionless customer service, gave a toss until local media started asking questions. But both examples are representative of how today’s cost-cutting airlines treat kids. And, ultimately, kid-free passengers, too.
Whoever was manning Air Canada’s Twitter account engaged with me about my situation, but the response was, once again, that this was essentially my fault. “Hi Joshua,” they tweeted, “we offer the possibility to select seats in advance at time of booking for a nominal fee. Waiting to select seats within 24 hours of flight departure is risky at best as there are usually very few seats left to select.”
@AirCanada assured me, of course, that it has “nothing to do with discriminating against families” and that they offer several fares for families who want options. “Some people would rather a lower fare w/out seat selection, while others prefer the slightly higher fare because they want to select seats in advance as well as collect 100% of the miles flown. For those who prefer the lower fare & want seats w/out the miles, we offer the option of purchasing seats. It is also why we encourage those flying Tango to purchase seats if want to ensure seating together.”
To sum it up: the “options” are to pay extra for your tickets, pay extra for your seat selection, or risk sitting apart from your toddler because non-prepaid seats are allocated by an automated computer system that makes no exceptions for small children.
@AirCanada also told me “the gate agents will do their utmost to have a young passenger seated with his/her parent(s) on day of travel,” which was the case in my situation. But the end-result of their current seating policy is that it unneccessarily stresses out parents, children, and the company’s own employees in apparent hope of snagging that advance-selection surcharge. Leaving a small child seated on their own on a plane, at an age when they are not legally allowed to fly unaccompanied, means that the child will eventually have to be moved. It is not just cruel to parent and child, but also to the blameless passengers faced with sitting beside a freaked-out little kid.
Passengers without children fear being seated beside kids far more than they fear crashing, hence the repeated calls for child-free flights. You’d think airlines would want to reduce rather than ramp up the stress levels, much less risk a meltdown from a frightened child separated from their parents. And making passengers, many of whom paid extra for their seat, move last-minute is incredibly unfair because it put the onus on them when the airline should be taking responsibility.
This issue is not exclusive to Air Canada, of course. New York congressman Chuck Shumer has gone so far as to call on U.S. airlines to waive extra seating fees for families, as many are now charging “premium” add-on costs to window and aisle seats, thus forcing families to pay up or sit apart. (He even convinced Virgin America and JetBlue to do so.)
The obvious solution is to alter the algorothim to seat parents and small children together when they book without charging them extra, since travelling families are already netting the airline between one and three more tickets than a childless couple or business traveller. Plus, the airline gets the double PR coup of presenting itself as family-friendly while also reassuring regular passengers that they won’t be forced to babysit some stranger’s distraught tot or be pressured to move once aboard.
And hey, guys: you could use all the positive PR you can get these days.