When Molly Todd tried to secure seat assignments for a recent US Airways (www.usairways.com) flight from Philadelphia to Cancun, Mexico, she made a disappointing discovery.
In order to sit next to her children (ages 7 and 10), she'd have to pay extra for her economy-class seat.
"I was told I could have seats together if I paid for the choice seats, which cost $30 extra each," says Todd, who co-owns a restaurant in Philadelphia. "I paid $4,000 for our tickets -- and now this?"
Todd is just the latest in a series of worried parents who find themselves on the wrong side of the airline industry's newest revenue-generating gimmick. This summer, American Airlines (www.aa.com) began charging for virtually every seat reservation on the plane, even if you're in economy class.
Discount airlines such as Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) and Spirit Airlines (www.spirit.com) already charge for seat assignments, but no airline is more "iffy" than Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com), which doesn't even offer assigned seats.
The issue here isn't whether the airlines should be charging for economy-class seat reservations. The Transportation Department has already given them the green light to do it, and passengers, by buying the cheap airline tickets, have implicitly approved of it -- even if they didn't intend to.
No, the issue is, what's a parent to do?
Well, I am a parent, and I've fielded numerous nervous calls from other parents during the last few months about their economy-class seating arrangements.
"Do we have to pay?" they all ask.
Here's what's going on from the airline's perspective: It wants to make as much extra money off you as possible. But its reservation systems are not optimized to keep traveling families together; they're programmed mostly to squeeze more greenbacks out of their passengers.
Still, says US Airways, that doesn't mean it wants to split families up.
"We do make every effort to seat families together while also being mindful as not to inconvenience customers with previously reserved seats," US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder told me.
Here are the steps to ensuring your family can sit together in economy class.
1. Get to the airport early. The sooner you're at the gate, the sooner you can ask an airline agent to address your seating problem. At this stage of your trip, the employees are not as concerned with generating revenues as ensuring everyone has a good flight. If they see you pulling up to the counter with young children, they will do their darnedest to help.
2. In the unlikely event you aren't seated together, appeal to a flight attendant once you've boarded. Crewmembers know that families that aren't seated together have the unique ability to make the entire cabin miserable; they will do their best to reseat you. Note that this might be a tougher pitch with teenagers or if all family members are adults -- but it's still worth a try.
3. If the flight attendants can't or won't help you, ask the person seated next to you if they'll switch. As long as the "fasten seat belt" sign isn't illuminated and you're in the same class of service, you should be able to switch. If you have young children, the pitch is easy. I mean, who really wants to be seated next to an unaccompanied toddler for 11 hours?
It turns out Todd didn't have to use any of these tips. When she arrived at the airport, a US Airways agent asked if he could seat a child next to an adult, in pairs.
"Later, he managed to put three of us together in one of the select rows that they had been trying to sell us," she says. "We were very grateful for his help."