As my family boarded our flight today, we noticed that there was a child sitting in my husband’s assigned seat. Because we had booked my husband’s flight separately and later than my son’s and mine, my son and I were in the window and middle and my husband was in the aisle one row behind us. I paid extra for his seat (I get free priority seats and he doesn’t) and my plan was to ask if the person in the aisle seat next to me if he would switch since it was only one row, but if he wouldn’t, it was no big deal, my husband still had a seat he could live with. It was on an aisle toward the front of the plane so we were good. Yet, as we got to our seats, mine and my sons were empty, but my husband’s had a child in it.
As it turns out, there was a mother traveling with her two children who were about six and eight. They were assigned in all middle seats. Two of the middle seats were in the same row across the aisle from each other and one was two rows back. I do not know why they were booked like that. I don’t know if she booked late so there were only middle seats available and she took what she could. I don’t know if she didn’t want to pay the extra for the priority seats (in those rows on this particular airline, it costs more for the aisle and window, but not the middle). Perhaps it was a combination of both or something else altogether like the airline changing their seats. All I know is that their seats were all middles apart from each other.
Being a mom, I understand that would be awful. I would want to sit with my children. I still want to sit with my child and he’s 12 and has flown by himself so would be fine. For that matter, I prefer to sit with my husband when we’re on the same flight, too, and we’re both adults fully capable of sitting alone.
All that being said, like the title says, “It is NEVER a good idea to sit in someone else’s assigned airplane seat.”
So what should have this poor mom done? I know what I would do and I also asked some other frequent travelers their advice.
First, if you have a group that needs to sit together, be sure to book a flight early and if the flight offers it, book seats at the same time as the flight is purchased. On some airlines, you may have to pay extra to reserve seats or at least certain seats. If it’s important to you to sit together, just consider that as part of the cost of the flight.
If that is not possible or if the airline has done something and changed your seats (it happens more often than you think), check with the gate agent to see if some rearranging can be done, especially if the airline changed your seats. At that point, they are usually rearranging seats anyway to accommodate upgrade and standby requests. Sometimes there will be seats further back in the plane that are together. They can also see who is traveling alone and call them to the podium to see if they’ll switch. I have run into gate agents who have refused to do this, but generally, they will at least make an attempt to get a family, especially children, together. They are more likely to do this when there are small children involved (it’s crazy that an airline would even seat a small child by him/herself, but that’s a story for another day).
If that has failed, board the plane and go to your original seats. If people are already in the other seats around you, very politely explain the situation to them and see if they’ll switch. Quite often, they don’t want to sit with your kids any more than you want your child to sit alone so they’ll switch. If those in seats around you haven’t yet boarded, wait in your original seats and ask when they get on. If it’s a very small child who is sitting away from you, take them to one of the assigned seats and hold them in your lap or if you have to, put them in the seat next to you but don’t get “settled in.” Be watchful for the person sitting in the seat to approach and be apologetic that your child is in their seat, explain the situation, and politely see if they’ll switch. You might also want to mention it to the flight attendant who may also help you do some rearranging. I have found that especially in cases where small children are separated from their parents, they will do what they can to find people to switch. I’ve even seen them offer a free drink or food item to the person making the switch. In cases with older children, I have also seen them help, but I have also seen them leave it for the parent to work out with other passengers.
In any case if your child is school age or older, if you see that your boarding passes have seats separate from each other, prepare your child that you may have to sit apart. This is especially true if you have to ask someone to give up a window or aisle seat for a middle seat. In the scenario we were in this morning, not only did the mom need my husband to move from the aisle to the middle, she needed him to give up a seat for which we paid $45 for an upgrade to go to a free seat. I have found that in cases like that, some people will not change seats even if it means sitting with your child unaccompanied. The man sitting next to me said he paid for his seat and he would not switch. That is absolutely his prerogative. I can especially see it in cases where someone has paid to upgrade his seat.
What was the outcome today? My husband and I are usually willing to switch if asked. I’m a mom. I get it, but there’s a catch. I must be asked. Do not sit in my seat first. Do not assume that I will just switch seats. This woman not only had her child settled in my husband’s seat, when he got to the seat, she just pointed to the middle seat across the aisle and expected that he would sit there. I at first thought the airline had messed up and double assigned the seat the way she acted. The flight attendant was right there and asked to see everyone’s boarding passes. It was only then that I found out that they were all assigned middle seats away from each other and that the woman had just taken the seats anyway. The person in the window had already sat in another seat. The flight attendant told her that she or one of the children was going to have to go to the middle seat across the aisle and she refused, making me even less inclined to be helpful. Luckily for her, my husband is nicer than I am. He gave up his $45 upgraded aisle seat to sit in the middle away from his own family.