Holiday Advices - Are you sitting with your children on your flight?

We have been receiving an increasing number of calls for some time from holidaymakers who have been allocated seating away from their young children on aircraft.

You cannot understand the logic of either holiday/airline contact centre staff, check-in staff or cabin crew, who somehow see no risk attached to children being seated some distance away from their parent’s or guardian!

Airlines will cite however that they manage children who travel on their own without difficulty, but I have often seen those children seated either very close to the front of the aircraft (usually the front row) or next to a cabin crew station; for many parents or guardians, they are not given that opportunity.

The situation arises from:

  1. Reserved seating being ‘re-allocated’ at either check-in or upon embarkation; or
  2. Those with no reserved seating simply having to ‘accept’ seating from what is ‘freely’ available at the check-in desk.

For many Consumers on a strict or limited budget, they have to make choices between the ‘luxury’ of a paid seat or simply waiting to be allocated at check-in; neither should face the stress of being separated from their children.

Consumers we have spoken to have told us that rather than be separated from their children, they have felt that they have had no option but to pay the ‘extra’ demanded at check-in for ‘available’ seating on the aircraft – some feel that they have been subjected to an unreasonable demand by the airline and that it is all about that airline making extra money over the safety of their children!

What many Consumers do not realise is that even when they make a reservation for a seat, within the terms & conditions of an airline, there will be a clause that states that the ‘reserved’ seating cannot be guaranteed, if they have to make changes within the cabin or if the aircraft type is changed.

The whole issue of seat allocation is a hotly debated topic on Google and within the social networks as can be seen from #twitter1000.

So some readers may say ‘these things can happen’ and if you are in the confines of an aircraft, what could possibly go wrong?

Consider these risk factors:

  1. Do children listen to the flight safety briefing; do they understand it?
  2. If we assume that a child is seated several rows away from its parent, how can a parent ensure that its child is aware of at least some aspects of that safety briefing?
  3. It raises an important question for an airline; if they seat a child away from its parent, do they ensure that they individually instruct the child on safety aspects – do they take responsibility for that child – is this explained to the parent?
  4. If a child is allocated a seat several rows away from its parent and an emergency arises, the child will be anxious to find its parent and may be at risk from other passengers keen to leave the aircraft;
  5. Alternatively, other passengers may be at risk from parents anxious to make contact with their child so reducing the opportunity for other passengers to leave the aircraft;
  6. There is also a more practical issue regarding this separation and that concerns what happens if a ‘separated’ child or children cause annoyance to other passengers; who is on hand to ensure that those children remain under close supervision?
  7. However, one other important aspect is revealed about this ‘seat allocation’ practice and that is one of child protection; should we assume, given society’s current and understandable angst over the safety of children, that separation is in the best interests of the child and does it not present a potential risk to an airline that they may be considered culpable by creating the conditions or opportunity for a crime to take place (whilst relevant on all flights, I think it is particularly so on long-haul flights)?

The question then follows, what rights do parents have; in short, they are limited but present opprtunities!

The key areas are:

  1. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has published a guidance note on seat allocation. It is important to remember that this guidance does not impose a regulatory obligation (which is why this problem arises) and its language simply suggests a ‘standard’ that airlines ‘should’ follow!
  2. The Guidance note suggests the following:
    1. That airlines ‘should…aim’ to seat children ‘close by their parents or guardian’;
    2. Children ‘should ideally be seated’ in the same row as the adult;
    3. Children should not be separated by more than one aisle;
    4. Where none of this is not possible, they suggest that children should be separated by ‘no more than one seat row’ from the ‘accompanying adults’;
    5. The CAA suggests that this guidance will help ‘increase the speed’ of an evacuation from the aircraft during an emergency by lessening the risk of adults trying to reach their children, and
    6. Ensure that children can be properly supervised.
    7. If an airline breaches these guidance notes, then we would strongly suggest that you contact the CAA Safety Regulation Group (4th para from the top) and make a formal complaint about the airline and the risks that you are being asked to accept (you should state out the risk factors as I have detailed them above);
  3. You should also consider making a complaint to your credit card provider under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act (if you paid by card – provide them details of what has happened and information from the CAA Guidance); your credit card company should assist you through this dispute;
  4. You should also consider the Unfair Trading Regulations (follow the hyperlink for more information). This provides 3 distinct offences; misleading actions, misleading omissions and aggressive commercial actions. It will depend on the circumstances of how you booked your seat, had it changed or were simply allocated. The offences are relatively new and we have found that there is some resistance by enforcement bodies to engage on these issues, but they are relevant and they do represent a good legal opportunity.

Given the head of steam this issue is creating, coupled with the risk factors I have identified, it strongly suggests that is not going to go away; it also suggests that the ‘softly-softly’ approach by the CAA has now passed its sell-by date and that it is time for the CAA and the government to elevate the guidance into a legal obligation on the airlines – clearly self-regulation has not worked!

Tags: Aircraft Aircraft Safety Passenger Safety Passenger Seating CAA

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