Airline Goes Out of Their Way to Help Ungrateful Family (The Perils of Basic Economy)

A customer service manager at a major airline shared a story in a Facebook group that I thought was worth passing along.

He was helping a family flying on basic economy fares with young children who had never flown before. And they did not pay for seat assignments and checked in late — there weren’t any seats left to give them together (something that the ‘system’ wouldn’t have given them on its own). All that was left “are middle seats 1 row apart in the back of the plane.”

    Here’s my first question: what obligations does a passenger have to understand their fare, and how what they’re purchasing either does – or does not – meet their needs? I’m second to no one in abhorring the practice of airlines making their product intentionally worse so that customers will spend more to avoid it, and paying extra to be able to assign seats in advance adds up for a family.

    However at least if tickets are purchased on the airline’s website basic economy restrictions are well-disclosed, and regardless the family had to know they did not have seat assignments (or at least didn’t know that they did) and that they would need seat assignments.

Here’s an American Airlines seating chart for basic economy, showing paid seat assignment options a couple of days out from travel:

In this case it was two adults, three children, and a lap infant. The parents were on separate tickets, eligible for seat assignments, they just didn’t select seats. It was the kids who were in basic economy.

Our customer service manager hero took the time to listen to the problem and try to find a solution,

I get on board and ask if there are any pairs who are willing to switch for these kids on this 3 hour flight, in exchange for a modest travel voucher. A younger couple ring their button to volunteer their seats. By the time I make my way to their row (coincidentally right in front of the kids), the mom had made her own arrangements (I can only imagine what she did to get it done), so the young couple didn’t need to volunteer after all.

This agent was willing to spend the airline’s money to fix the problem of the family not spending enough with the airline (and not paying attention on the tickets where they did). He may even have risked pushing back by a few minutes to do it.

I see him as someone going above and beyond, a real hero. I’m not sure he did what his employer would have wanted though. But what would the travel experience have been like for the rest of the plane, with unaccompanied kids separated from their parents between other passengers?

Even though the volunteers didn’t ultimately need to switch seats he “gave them the vouchers anyway for being willing to be uncomfortable for [several] hours for these kids.”

The parents? They didn’t say thank you. To anyone. Not to the couple that was willing to give up their seats. Not to the agent who go on board to solve the problem.

It’s fair to blame airlines for a lot of how we experience travel, but I also think we have to blame ourselves or at least take some responsibility for ourselves — at some level don’t we need to take ownership over our own experience? And travel would be better for everyone, all around, if we’d practice gratefulness.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Although I place the blame squarely on the family, there’s a couple of places where the airlines fail here. Many people fly infrequently. I have affluent and generally informed friends who travel by air maybe once every 2-3 years. The very existence of “basic economy” is a new enough phenomenon that it’s reasonable to expect there are people who’ve not even heard of it, let alone understand what it entails. Adding to the confusion, most infrequent travelers buy their tickets through OTAs like Expedia. Although the airlines have a decent number of warnings and flags about what basic economy does and does not include, OTAs are less comprehensive in their warnings.

    Again, the family should have paid better attention, but it’s not simple or easy to travel with a family and this is yet another hurdle they may not have even understood existed.

  2. So, this happened to us on SWA. I thought when I purchased the tickets, that families with young children would be allowed to board first. I guess that was a thing of the past, because it is no longer the case. The first leg, we were able to find adjacent seats. The 2nd leg, I was told by SWA to buy the priority boarding option. That was $100 for everyone since I didn’t purchase it online beforehand. Instead, we purchased $40 worth, a grand total savings of $20 if I had bought it for 5 of us (5x$15) in the first place. So, I bought two, one child and myself, and had to “block out” five seats together. Awkward telling other passengers to “not sit here”. Thanks SWA. That’s how I want to start a family vacation. Now, for family travel, I heavily avoid SWA. Why? Because I really don’t want to be on a plane where the airline doesn’t care about the overall passenger experience. In my case, the youngest was afraid of flying. I knew that turbulence with him sitting in a random seat was not going to work out well.
    A little Texas hospitality (“LUV”) would be nice, but it is not to be. So, for family travel, it is JetBlue, Delta, AA, UAL, Alaska, not SWA.
    Priority Boarding is only a half solution. But if it works for you, go for it.
    Alaska Air, on the other hand, went to extremes to accommodate us after we forgot to reserve specific seats. At the last minute, they got four seats for us together, and I had to ride “in the back of the bus.” They treated us like royalty, and that was just a simple phone call ahead of time. Delta was the standard bearer, giving us the seats we reserved in the first place, and in flight entertainment.
    I cannot imagine family travel on Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, etc, without a lot of cushion in the schedule and creative problem solving when unexpected things come up. For solo/couple travels, it is manageable and worth the savings, otherwise, your entire vacation could go haywire.

  3. @mallthus, excellent point.

    So many of the Kettles–my elderly parents included–know nothing about the intricacies of flying today. If my 80+ Dad were on an OTA–Orbitz, for example– and trying to book a couple of tickets, he wouldn’t think of clicking on the small blue font which reads “Fare Options”, because he is going to think the super important info will be covered in “Details and Baggage Fees” link directly below the flight information.

    I do believe the airlines are slightly better than the OTAs at disclosing the drawbacks of BE, but in my opinion I think the caveats should be in big, bold, flashing red font asking something like “WARNING: Are you SURE you don’t mind not having an assigned seat? Are you willing to sit anywhere on the aircraft, all alone, separated from friends and family? If so, check here and enter your initials”.

    I know it seems silly but that’s how it is today.

  4. The seat maps are an optional pop up that infrequent flyers might not know to visit.

  5. Simple solution, do not allow children under a certain age to be booked on Basic Economy fares.

  6. FR have a good solution. The Adult must pay for a seat assignment and the kids (under 12) get the adjacent seat at no cost.

  7. Oh wow Chris is totally right! No children travelling under 12 or 14 should be allowed Basic Economy Fairs and also when children of that age are being booked then no one in the reservation can have Basic Economy fares! THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME BTW ON MY FLIGHTS AND SURPRISINGLY MORE THAN NOT THE PARENTS DON’T THANK ANYONE

  8. @leef33: Kids 6 and under can board between A and B groups for free, with their accompanying adults. I assume since this didn’t work for you that your kids are older than 6. I suspect I’d have been upset to be separated from my kids at age 7 or 8, too. But in fairness Southwest isn’t really ignoring this issue as you imply.

  9. How did the family book both parents on separate tickets, eligible for seat assignments, and all kids on Basic Economy? Were the kids ticketed as unaccompanied minors?

  10. @leef33 SW has not changed their policy. If any of your kids are under 6 the whole family boards between A and B. If they are older than that, then just like everyone else, you need to check in right at 24 hours and you will not be in the C boarding. I purchase early bird sometimes and sometimes check in at 24 hours. I’ve always been at least above B 30, even when checking in a few minutes late and even with preboarders and families, we have never had a problem finding 2 seats together, with one being a window seat and towards the back there are always full rows empty. If you could not find seats together then you must have not checked in at the 24 hour mark. SW is very family friendly.

  11. It seems a bit onerous that families with small kids who are least able to afford to pay for an upgraded seat, are the ones you are saying need to pay for it. How about these kids are less weight to begin with and costing the airlines less to travel, and yet again they should be the ones penalized?

    It’s just a stupid policy by the airlines and should be backfiring on them. Causing stress among passengers who paid for the seat assignment and by those who didn’t.

    Rather than the knee jerk reaction of not allowing kids to fly economy, how about families with small children flying in economy are placed together? That seems fairer based on obviously less weight and the multitude of tickets bought by the family instead of the single or double flier.

    I think this can be kind of forced on the airline by designating a child seat as coming with the child. I believe by law the child seat needs to be in window seat (in which case who wouldn’t switch their middle seat to not fly next to a child in a car seat), or the car seat can be placed in the middle seat only when a parent is in the window seat. So this forces the airline to do as they should, put the parent and child next to each other instead of forcing a penalty on them to fly together. Actually an insane policy by the airlines, penalizing families with small children because they obviously need to sit together.

    My wife and I could obviously decide not to have our seat together. That is an option for us. A mother and her 3 year old is not an option to sit apart and therefore they should be penalized by the airline?

    The airlines can place the fares as they want. If they have this stupid policy for families, then they can deal with the ramifications of upset passengers, less comfort with parents bringing car seats, and delays as things are worked out.

    I don’t place the problem on the parents at all. It is an airline problem that they unfairly caused and which they can easily remedy.

    FYI, I am over 60 and don’t have any 3 year old dependents that I am aware of.

  12. Leef33: Southwest has family boarding for families with young children. So no need to pay extra. Next time learn the rules. And stop whining about saving seats. We do that all the time. Much cheaper than paying extra for seats on AA.

  13. Airlines shouldn’t sell a product that separates families, at any price.

    I am very aware of the polices, yet routinely buy BE for my family fully expecting the airline to seat us together, which it inevitably does.

  14. @FlyingBoat I have a young child and I can’t tell you how much I disagree with your comment. I get that people who don’t fly frequently may not intuitively know all the rules but I’m sorry, grown adults who are buying tickets should actually read the terms of the tickets. Period.

    I don’t get giving people a pass for not understanding a fare rule that they could easily figure out with one second of simple reading.

    Like I said I have a young child and guess what? When we fly we don’t book BE. Yes it costs more but I don’t think having a kid makes me special and deserve more benefits for the same price ticket just because I’m a mother. Honestly the entitlement of people irritates me to no end.

    I get that BE fares suck and airlines suck for having them but since they do have them the rules should be the same for everyone. Just because I CHOSE to have a child doesn’t mean I should get more value from a plane ticket.

  15. Gary, you’re typically spot on in your blog, but this is way off. Instead of working to make their products better, airlines have been working for years now to make their products worse and worse, hoping that you’ll pay them extra money to avoid the bad effects. My wife and I travel with four small children and we will sometimes choose Basic Economy fares when we’re pinching the budget. Purchasing seats for a family of 6, which is a completely bogus machination of the revenue-grubbing executives, adds up pretty quickly. I recently took a flight from LAX to AKL and the cheapest paid seat assignments were $149/each on that leg alone. Simply choosing seats would have cost my family $1000+ each direction on all three legs. I put my foot down and wouldn’t do it. The airline is effectively saying that they’re happy to take the liability of seating my 9, 7, and 5 year old girls anywhere they’d like for the tradeoff of hoping I’ll pay more to avoid it. I worked proactively to get us seats together and it ended up being fine. An extra $2k in my pocket. The airline software is plenty robust to simply assign families with children under a certain ago seats together. Sure, give them the worst seats on the plane, but put them together.

  16. Buyer beware. It is totally the responsibility of the consumer to understand what they buy. This applies to everything from airline seats to mortgages (remember all the idiots that lost their houses they whined they didn’t understand what they signed). On the major airline sites BE flashes numerous warning and, at least in the case of American, you get follow up E-mails notifying you to buy seats if you want. I’m EP on American and Lifetime Platinum but I fly BE for cheap, short flights (like $98 RT to New Orleans) especially since I can still board in group 2 based on my status and carry on a bag so I’m well aware of how it works. Also, they would have the same issue, even if not BE, on Southwest, Frontier, Allegient or Spirit so if tickets were bought solely on price these would also come into play.

    IMHO the gate agent went above and beyond and the family should have been VERY grateful of the steps that were taken along with maybe understanding how to better book a trip in the future.

  17. To the bloggers (and airlines) that believe BE is the problem of adults not reading the fine print: Please remember that the first fatality on a SWA flight, one year ago, was an adult that was sucked out of the plane after an engine malfunction, who, unfortunately, left her seatbelt unbuckled. When the 12 year old is seated next to you, will you be responsible for watching that their seat belt stays buckled? Will you hold his/her hand when turbulence is encountered? Help them to the potty? Press the call button? Tell them to remain seated after landing? Get their luggage for them? Give them a snack? I didn’t think so, but the airlines sure appreciate it.
    As for SWA = Family Friendly? Not even close! They don’t give a flip about family. Think about your response: Only families with children 6 and under get free priority boarding. I know 8 year olds that can barely order a Happy Meal. The airlines are practically requiring that they know how to order it, how to pay for it, how to get it when its ready, and how to clean up their table when they are finished.
    Apologies, but I don’t accept explanations that require reading the fine print when a blog and comments have done more to understand and avoid a predictable, routine, problem than the multi-billion $ airlines have. All of them. Special thanks to the FAA for acting on behalf of the traveling public that paid for the airports, gave up their airspace, pay your salaries, etc.

  18. I have a script ready in my head for whenever I am asked to switch seats by a passenger so they can sit next to their kids. If their boarding pass says Group 5 (United Basic Economy) I’m going to politely tell them that they’ll need a flight attendant to tell me that I am required to move.

    And for the record I have traded an aisle seat for a middle seat so a family could sit together, but I will not be punished for someone’s attempt to game the system by paying Basic Economy and then demanding seats together with their kids.

  19. The really sad part is that it’s not just families who like to play musical chairs with their basic economy tickets. Grown adults who apparently can’t be separated for two hours do this as well. They will block the aisle and hold up boarding until they can convince people to switch with them.
    Basic economy exists for a reason. You want cheaper airfares? Here you go. It’s not like it’s any different overseas either. Europe and Asia both have their fair share of LCCs and ULCCs where you pay for every extra service.

  20. JJ. You are not getting it. Your child costs less for the airline to fly and yet they are forcing you to pay more, and yet you think that is fare and don’t want special benefit. Not forcing you to pay more is not a special benefit. A single individual or a couple could role the dice and might get to sit in an aisle seat or together. That isn’t a possibility with a small child, because you can’t roll the dice. So you are forced to pay more to begin with.

    It could be an argument that you should pay more for aisle or window seat. But that isn’t even the case. In the case of a small child they want you to pay more even though the child is taking up a middle seat!

    You may like the way the airlines are playing this game. I don’t. So I would tell parents to play the system against them and bring a child seat if you need to. This is entirely the airlines problem and not the parents.

  21. I’m 6’5″ and over 60, so my tall, achy body need seats with leg room on flights over two hours. I have a young wife and kid (age 4) and they travel with me frequently. I pay for all of us to be seated together in seats big enough for me. I am a thrifty guy, but if I can’t afford the plane seats, I can’t afford the trip. I’m not going to beg other passengers to sacrifice the premium seats they paid for so we can get by without paying.

  22. Alan C. Maybe next time you should be grateful and thank the parents for buying a ticket for their tiny child so the airline saves fuel cost and you get your fat arse transported for a lower price.

    Airlines need to stop penalizing families with small children. Its putting unfair, and unneeded stress on everyone.

    I have been on the other side of this as well. Parent asked person across from me to change seat for their child. Person said no. FA asked me and I said I paid for an aisle seat, if they could get me an aisle seat I will change. FA goes scurrying off. What a mess. Totally caused by the airline, not the parent. They cause this issue by penalizing families and wanting them to pay more for middle seat for their child. Airlines can do what they want as far as I am concerned, but then they are also suffering the consequences.

  23. Depending on the age of the children, this may have been illegal on AA’s part. Congress passed the Families Flying Together act in 2015, although the FAA hasn’t been in any hurry to implement the law (I’m sure that’s completely unrelated to the fact that airlines are making big bucks scaring families into paying more for seat assignments). Airlines are basically saying that you need to pay them extra money to supervise your children. I would think they would be invested in helping parents maintain positive control while flying. Apparently, not so. Who wants an unsupervised child kicking their seat back, crying, or wetting their pants seated around them? I’m thinking that should be pretty much nobody. These comments and Gary’s view are astounding. We should all be invested in keeping families together. Everyone benefits. I don’t ever expect someone to give up a premium seat for me to sit with my children. However, I have been on flights where I introduce myself and literally say, my child is seated between you two random strangers. She can be pretty needy. If you’re good with that, fine. If you want an easy way out of this, I’ll be glad to switch seats with you. I have yet to have anyone decline. I’m not paying more to supervise my children. Just wait until a child is molested who was separated from their families on a BE fare.

  24. I think a lot of people assume that an airline will seat a family together regardless of what fare they buy.
    I was flying back from Orlando on Frontier and most of the flight is families with small children. A mom and two kids(I would guess 10 and 12) got on and when they got to mom’s seat, she was really confused as to why there people in the other two seats next to her. A flight attendant came up to her and said that people pay for advanced assignment or get it at check in.
    The mom was not rude, mean, or demanding, but was very confused and said that she thought the airline would sit a family “with small kids” together. She began asking people to move, but most everyone had bought seats. Why? Because they had toddlers, 6 and 7 year olds. They had not only paid for their seats but had children younger than hers that they were not going to move.
    The flight attendant took her to the back of the plane and a row stayed empty for her family to sit in, across from me. She asked me if this was normal and I said yes, especially for a low cost carrier. She had no idea what that meant.

  25. I have 4 kids and we usually fly SW. When we booked another carrier via a third party (points), we never got a notice that we had to choose a seat. Back in the day, when I was a lot younger, my experience was that the booking agent (phone) would book the seat. Fast forward to the realization right before our flight that we didn’t ever get a seat assignment… I felt pretty stupid, but honestly the idea that the seat hadn’t been booked – and our kids wouldn’t automatically get placed near us (for the benefit of the other passengers who wouldn’t want to deal with small children) was a little shocking. I saw it as a failing of airline communication and common sense, so the idea of thanking someone was probably not top-of-mind. However, that being said, when one leg of our flight was canceled and we had to be rebooked, the airline put all of us together & in a better class seat… not necessary and I was quite impressed and grateful.

  26. Another thing to note: Congress recently passed a bill directing the Transportation Department to establish a policy requiring airlines to seat small children with their parents *at no extra charge*. Unfortunately the transportation department has yet to create the specific regulation, so airlines are technically free to do so.

    I think you should be very clear what you’re saying. What you’re saying is that families and children should not be allowed to purchase basic economy, and that airlines should charge more for child tickets.

    This problem has been created by the airlines. They chose to create seat classes where people are split up to give more things to up charge for. They also chose to sell these cheapo tickets to children **even though they know that children need seats with their parents**.

    It seems pretty fair, therefore, that the airline should pay the burden of getting people to volunteer to move. Don’t sell people tickets that you full well know they can’t use.

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