If you have kids, don’t fly on US Airways. We were on three flights of theirs yesterday as we slowly made our way from Boston to Tucson. Not once was I assigned a seat near my kids.
Now, I confess that when I saw I had a boarding pass for seat 5D and my kids both had seats in row 26, I was delighted. Who wants to sit between a two-year-old and a 5-year-old on a cross-country trip? Not me.
When I approached the gate agent to point out the error, I said, “Hey, I’m perfectly happy not to sit anywhere near these kids on the plane, but I’m sure you won’t really let me do that. Here’s my boarding pass, change my seat assignment.”
The joke got a lot less funny when he said, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”
As I explained to the supervisor I shortly found myself speaking with, I would be arrested for leaving two kids that young unattended in the company of total strangers for six hours. Making me sit at one end of a plane and them at the other isn’t something I can agree to, even if I wanted to. Which all joking aside, I do not.
“Just get on the plane, and maybe some passenger will be generous enough to switch seats with you,” he advised me.
HOT TIP, US AIRWAYS: THIS IS THE WRONG ANSWER.
On that first flight, it turned out my sister – who is traveling with us – was also seated at the front of the plane. I traded boarding passes with my older daughter and we were fine. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. We got on our connecting flight and discovered that we had four center seats in different rows. That’s right, my sister and her lap baby, my toddler, my kindergartner and myself had all been assigned center seats on the plane, in different rows from each other.
We kind of flailed in confusion for a few minutes, while the flight crew studiously ignored us. Then the regular boarding started, and pretty quickly a dude came along and wanted the seat my five-yr-old had helped herself to. I tried to explain that we were confused and had been assigned the wrong seats. He tried to explain that really the window seat was his and could I please move my kid. We politely explained these things to each other for a few minutes.
Eventually I noticed that a woman sitting in the row behind my sister had gotten to her feet and was quietly watching us. She suggested that I give the man his seat and move to my own assigned seat two rows away. I explained again that we had been assigned the wrong seats and needed someone from the flight crew to help us.
The woman said she would help.
“Are you a stewardess?” I asked, since she didn’t look or act like one. She wasn’t wearing a uniform or nametag, and hadn’t introduced herself or acted at all helpful. I’d been assuming she was a nosy neighbor.
“No,” she said.
I went back to trying to solve my problem with the passengers around me.
“I’m a flight attendent,” she said a moment later. It wasn’t clear who she was talking to. She was looking at the back of one of the seats when she said it.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
After a few more seconds I realized she might be trying to tell me something.
“Are you a flight attendant on this flight?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Great! Maybe you can help me. See, they assigned us to the wrong seats, and I need to figure out where we can all sit together.”
“Just go to your assigned seats for now, and if someone is willing to offer to trade seats with you later, you can move.”
“I’m sorry, did you just tell me to leave my two-year-old sitting here sandwhiched between two total strangers while I go to another part of the plane?”
“For now,” she hissed, as if I’d been badgering her with bitchy questions about where I could stow my 17 pairs of designer shoes for an hour.
Then she stood there glaring at us for the rest of the boarding. She refused to speak to me again or make eye contact, even when I talked to her. She didn’t interact with the other passengers at all. It was like she was watching to make sure I didn’t do anything sneaky like try to steal another passenger’s rightful seat.
At first, I am ashamed to say, I tried to cooperate with her outrageous demand. I gave the toddler to my sister, who was already holding her own lap baby. I went to my seat two rows over, and asked my five-year-old to be brave and sit her seat one row behind mine.
My kids have a lot more sense than I do, and both promptly had panic attacks. The baby sobbed like anything and started kicking and threw herself into the aisle and would not move until she was in my arms. Her sister just sobbed quietly and shook as strangers took their seats around her.
A word about security theater: I let this go on as long as I did because we were on an airplane, and I was afraid that if I stepped out into the aisle to pick up my crying baby, or moved one row back to comfort my daughter, I would be arrested for felony “acting weird on a plane and not listening to the stewardess flight attendant”. The TSA may not be able to keep bombs off our planes, but they certainly succeed at terrorizing me.
I also worried that I would arrested if I did not intervene quickly or effectively enough to stop my kids’ tantrums. It happens. Parents have been pulled off planes and charged with felonies for refusing to listen to a flight attendants absurd demands about their kids, and they’ve been pulled off of plans and stranded for failing to comfort them fast enough to make the other passengers happy.
And my family wonders why I get so stressed when I fly with my girls.
Anyway, eventually my terror of being arrested for leaving my seat against orders cancelled out my terror of being arrested for letting my kids cry and I scooped them both up and took over TWO ADJACENT SEATS. The stewardess flight attendant just glared.
Eventually, someone came to claim my contraband seat. She was a mom with a 9-yr-old boy in tow, and before she even tried to sit down, she grabbed the stewardess flight attendant and insisted on having her seat moved because she had been assigned a seat two rows away from her son.
The ever helpful stewardess flight attendant told this woman she could not sit with her son or go to her assigned seat, and had to move to the opposite end of the plane. She was extremely rude about it.
“Don’t give me that attitude!” the woman said. “I just want to sit down with my son.”
“Lady, we have BABIES that are being separated from their parents. Your child is old enough to sit alone,” she said.
NOTE: This was the only time on the entire flight that anyone from US Airways acknowledged in my hearing that my being separated from my toddler for a seven hour flight might be less than ideal. Every person I spoke to about it acted like I was being outrageous for expecting such a privilege, and stupid for thinking they could or would accomodate it.
The woman, to her amazing credit, said, “Don’t try that on me! You wouldn’t separate a baby from her parents. That would never happen. That is not happening. Now give me my seat.”
Yes, our seating snafu was so appalling that other passengers assumed the stewardess flight attendant was lying about it to avoid helping them with their problems. I wish.
All told, my sister and I counted at least five families with kids under 12 whose seat assignments would have forced the kids to fly alone. This in spite of the fact that airline policy prohibits minors from flying alone if they are under 12. We also saw two other families with teens or older relatives who had been separated.
I had to stand with my terrified baby in my arms and my scared daughter clinging to my legs until every single passenger was in a seat. Then the stewardess flight attendant came over, leaned around me without ever speaking to me, and asked the woman sitting in the third seat in our row if she spoke English.
“Yes,” the woman said with a heavy Russian accent. She was clearly confused.
“Are you over 15 years old?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
They had this conversation three times. Eventually the woman, who was older than my mom, understood what she was being asked and confirmed that she was over 15.
“Would you be willing to sit in an emergency exit row? We need an additional volunteer for exit row seating.”
The woman agreed, and moved. The stewardess flight attendant walked away.
“Excuse me!” I shouted after her. “Does this mean that we can have these three seats? Can I sit here with my kids?”
She stared at me as if this question were entirely out of the blue.
“Are your children ticketed passengers?” she said.
“Then you can sit there.”
She walked away.
I had to be polite to her then. See also: being rude to airplane personnel can easily get twisted into a felony these days.
But I’m not on the plane now, and I can say it: lady with the gray hair on the 5 p.m. Washington to Phoenix USAirways flight on Feb 13, you were really mean to me and my kids. I had a lot of choice things to say, but I think that’s the important one. I hope you read this and think twice about acting like that again. My girls have cried themselves to sleep two nights in a row now, and a huge chunk of that is down to your crappy attitude.
Here is what you should have done:
- assured us everything would be OK, and that you would take responsibility for making it so.
- offered us a row of three seats together, somewhere on the plane.
- explained to the passengers holding those boarding passes that due to an error made by US Airways, you needed to reassign their seats.
And you, US Airways. You suck. You knew my kids ages when you made the seat assignments. There’s no excuse for not seating us together. Even worse, you clearly have No Plan for dealing with this sort of thing. “Ask some generous passenger to do you a favor” is a totally unacceptable answer.
What if I was a Crazy Person and I had just shrugged and sat my two-year-old down between a couple of business travelers at the opposite end of the plane from me?
Would you really have let the plane take off like that? Would you have taken responsibility for any illness, injury or harm that befell her? What about damage she’d have done to the other passengers property and person in her panic? If you’re now offering free in-flight babysitting, you should advertise it. I could have kicked back with a book and an overpriced cocktail and had a much better time. Or, more likely, booked my tickets on an airline that would let me sit with my kids.
I am calling your executive customer service tomorrow morning to find out what your company is doing to correct this error-prone seat assignment system, and to train employees on how to deal with it in the hopefully rare instance it occurs in the future. You had better have a good answer.
[ETA: I did speak with a customer relations rep from US Airways. Here's my account of our conversation.]