Traveling with family and friends? Don’t count on sitting together, unless you’re willing to fork over extra money.
It has become increasingly common for airlines to charge passengers extra to choose seats on flights in advance, making it common for parties to be separated on flights. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), a U.K. airline regulatory body, has launched an investigation into the practice, and found U.K. passengers pay an estimated 390 million pounds a year ($547 million) to ensure they are seated together.
For those who do not pay, one in five passengers are separated from friends and family on flights, and that number rises to one in three for budget airlines like Ryanair
A spokesman for Ryanair said the airline is happy to participate in the review by the CAA. “Our policy is very clear for our customers and seats can be purchased from just €2 ($2.50) while children traveling in families get free allocated seats,” he said.
However, consumer advocates say these pricing models are unclear, and airlines are profiting from customer confusion. Although the CAA review only applies to U.K. airlines, similar investigations are sorely needed in the U.S., said Henrik Zillmer, chief executive officer of airline compensation service provider AirHelp.
“It’s unacceptable that airlines are making millions of dollars a year by misinforming passengers,” he said. “The only way that we’ll truly see airlines treat passengers with the respect they deserve is with stronger regulations that hold airlines accountable for their actions.”
Congress passed a law in 2016 called the Families Flying Together Act, which was supposed to ensure children under the age of 13 will be seated with parents or guardians on flights, but regulations resulting from the law have yet to be drafted by the Federal Aviation Administration, said consumer travel advocate and writer Christopher Elliott.
Meanwhile, families are being separated and young children forced to sit alone and unattended, he said. “One of the lowest things an airline can do is separate travelers,” he said. “They are doing this intentionally to make money.” (The industry trade group, Airlines for America, did not immediately respond to request for comment.)
So what should you do if you want to fly with a family member or other travel companion? This may be one case when booking with a travel agent is advisable, Elliott said, as some of them are more easily able to pull strings to get large groups seated together. If booking a flight yourself, don’t give into the extra charges, he added. Instead, buy a ticket for the lower fare online and, when you arrive at the gate, tell the airline agents you need to sit with your companions and often they will often make accommodations.