Flying apart: Parents have to pay the price to fly together with children

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This is the busiest travel season of the year. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds a growing number of parents who try to get the best prices on airline seats may find themselves seated nowhere near their small children.

Liling Pang was already stressed out about traveling with her three small children, but the stress got even worse once she reached the airport. Pang says her flight was rebooked, and the gate attendant told her that her new seats would not be near her 5- and 8-year-old sons. She says the airline said staff aboard the aircraft would try to help, but no passengers were willing to switch seats to accommodate her, since both boys were seated in middle seats.

Pang says she recalls thinking “What happens if there’s an emergency? Who was going to take care of him?”

The Pangs aren’t alone. Rainer Jenss, of the Family Travel Association, says children as young as 4 are being separated from parents on flights. Jenss says he’s even seen it happen to kids with autism or other special needs.

“It’s really becoming an issue not just of morality or decency but of safety,” he says.

For parents, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. The FBI says reports of in-flight sexual assault are on the rise, from 38 in 2014 to 63 last year. Victims have included children as young as 8 years old.

The risk of parents being separated from children is growing. Most major airlines no longer offer reserved seating on basic economy tickets, or will only let travelers select middle seats. To be sure you will sit with your kids, you have to pay as much as $50 to $100 per ticket.

Congress didn’t think that was right, so in 2016, it passed the “Families Flying Together Act”, directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to come up with regulations to ensure children under 13 are seated with their parents.

But the DOT never did. Part of the problem is that the bill was vaguely written, merely asking the agency to establish a policy “if appropriate.” An agency spokesperson tells Kane In Your Corner that “based on the low number of family seating complaints received, issuing a policy was not appropriate at this time.”

The DOT took the action without holding any hearings or soliciting any public comment.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, is one of several lawmakers challenging the agency’s findings.

“The airline charging more for parents to sit next to their small children is an abuse of their power in the marketplace,” says Blumenthal.

News 12 checked with the five biggest U.S. airlines. Four – American, Delta, United and Alaska – say their staff makes every effort to seat families together, but confirm that the only way to be completely certain is to pay more for an upgraded ticket. The fifth, Southwest Airlines, offers no reserved seating.

Pang, who now runs a family travel website, says she’s found that airline employees generally do try to be accommodating. She’s angry at the airlines themselves.

“They know they can make money off the stress a family has around wanting to be next to a child,” she says.

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