Calls for separate seating rise with tensions on flights
It's not that Ian Burford hates children. But the founder of the Facebook page "Airlines should have kid-free flights!" would prefer not to have a wailing tot nearby when he flies.
"I'm 6-4, so seating is always an issue," says Burford, who launched his page a year ago. "But when you're uncomfortable anyway, and then you have some young child screaming or kicking the back of your chair, it just puts you in a bad position, because there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. It's not a case of not liking kids. It's a case of not wanting them sitting next to you or behind you when you travel."
Across the skies, there's a growing debate over whether airlines should do more to segregate the seating of passengers — with designated areas for kids, for example. At a time when increasingly crowded jets have helped to make flying less pleasant for many passengers and social media allow them to instantly tweet their frustrations to the world, a comfortable perch on the plane — and some tranquility around it — has become ever more precious.
Polls of fliers by the travel search site Skyscanner and of business travelers by Britain's Business Travel & Meetings Show indicate a majority of airline passengers want sections set aside for families, or cabins that are for adults only. Overweight passengers have complained about being humiliated as airlines enforce rules that they pay for a second seat so they won't crowd their fellow fliers. And some passenger advocates say that designated rows for those who are tall, heavy or disabled would be a good idea.
"Travel really has become, from the time you leave for the airport to the time you get to your destination ... a stressful experience," says Jami Counter, senior director at SeatGuru, whose website had a record number of visitors in January as fliers sought information on the roomiest cabins and seats.
"When you get on a plane and there's an issue with a seatmate spilling into your space, that makes it that much more miserable," Counter says. "Comfort is an overriding issue, and social-media tools have made it easy to bubble this up to (the) public consciousness."
High-profile incidents have put a spotlight on the tensions.
Last month, Southwest Airlines apologized to a passenger who told KABC-TV in Los Angeles that he was embarrassed when a flight attendant loudly asked whether he'd bought two seats and said that his weight might upset other fliers. In a separate incident, film director Kevin Smith sent a spate of angry tweets in February 2010 after he says he was kicked off a Southwest flight because airline employees thought his weight prevented him from fitting comfortably into one seat.
Qantas settled a lawsuit filed in 2009 by a woman who said a screaming child on her flight caused her to lose some of her hearing. And in 2007, AirTran kicked a family off a flight that was headed to Boston from Fort Myers, Fla., after the family's 3-year-old daughter was disruptive and wouldn't sit down.
Reducing tensions in flight
Some passengers and travel analysts — noting that airlines have begun squeezing more money out of passengers by charging fees for a range of perks, including seats that recline more and even the option of cuddling with your seatmate — say that to decrease tension in the skies, cabins should be cordoned off even more than they are now.
A poll taken in August by Skyscanner found that 59% of fliers supported a section reserved for families. A survey in January of 1,000 business fliers based in the United Kingdom by the Business Travel & Meetings Show found that 74% said they would like to see some flights bar children from the business-class cabin.
"It would be nice if airlines had a section for parents traveling with children, and their own bathrooms," says Jay Burns, a senior construction manager based in Dallas. And, "airlines should have a percentage of seating in aircraft that is for large people. It is difficult enough traveling today without having to put up with other distractions."
Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran, says it's rare that a family has to be removed from a plane because of an unruly child, as his carrier did in January 2007.
Although flight attendants usually don't have to intervene, noisy children are "an issue where passengers range from slightly annoyed to very frustrated," he says. "People ask to be moved all the time, and we're happy to try and accommodate that."
Burford says he started his Facebook page as a lark, only to see it gain nearly 800 members. Flights for grown-ups-only would be ideal, he says. Short of that, he says, airlines could "have a box on a booking form to say, 'Please don't sit me next to a child.' "
A marketing edge?
Special flights or sections could help a carrier stand out from the crowd, some marketers suggest.
Lopo Rego, a marketing specialist who teaches at the University of Iowa, noted how passengers are paying the fees airlines now charge for extra legroom in the exit row, or to sit in newly created sections of coach.
"Would that work for a whole section of a plane devoted to families? I think it has potential to work," he says. "I'm just not entirely sure what the price premium they can command might be. But it would be a unique way to differentiate themselves."
Even some who might travel with young children say having their own part of the cabin could be nice.
"If I'm traveling with my niece and nephew, I might want the freedom to let the kids play and make a little noise and not worry about upsetting a few people," says Scot Carlson, North America country manager for Skyscanner.
Some travel specialists see exclusive sections as a bad idea.
"It's a dangerous way of thinking," says Anya Clowers, who advises fliers on how to make their trips more comfortable and has a website, JetWithKids.com. "Who's next? Maybe my grandma who's taking a little more time. ... You want a kid-free flight? Put noise-canceling headphones on. You don't want people to kick you in the back of your seat? Sit in first class or the last row of coach. But kicking kids off planes is just not realistic."
Some airline officials and analysts say that exclusive sections on flights are unlikely to help an airline's bottom line and could turn into a logistical nightmare.
Planes are flying full as carriers pare back flights and seats. So what is there to do with a family who missed their flight when the kids' section on the next flight has no space? And if you're sitting in the back of the grown-up section and a baby is crying in the next row, would being in a separate section really make a difference?
"In the airline industry you can never say never, but it's not in any type of short-term plan for us," says AirTran's White. "I don't know if any airline could sustain profitability with an adults-only route if it's going anywhere that's at all family-oriented, like Orlando. ... Any kind of tourist destination, you're going to be hard-pressed to run a flight without kids."
Counter of SeatGuru agrees that it's unclear airlines could make any money from such sections. "Customers are still price-sensitive. So even though they'll say they'd pay to sit in a child-free section, I'd be fairly skeptical," he says.
Some heavy travelers and their supporters say they'd gladly pay for a few rows of their own.
"We'd like a section of the plane or particular seats on the plane that are more accommodating for people of size," says Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the Oakland-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "If they're going to cost me a little bit more, I don't care. They're charging for everything these days, so give me a seat that doesn't cost as much as first class but is wide enough to accommodate a little extra weight."
Howell says her organization is troubled by the arbitrary enforcement of rules regarding heavy passengers buying a second seat. She also is concerned that such rules potentially discriminate against women, who tend to have wider hips, and certain ethnic groups.
And, she says, complaints about heavy seatmates often are rooted in a bias many passengers had before they boarded the plane.
"Many people start out with a fat bias already in their minds," she says. "When they see a fat person ... they're thinking for the most part, 'Don't sit by me.' "
'A delicate balancing act'
In 2009, United began requiring fliers who couldn't put down their armrests and needed more than one seatbelt extender to purchase a second seat. The policy followed a number of complaints from fliers who said their personal space was being infringed upon.
Southwest also requires fliers who can't lower both armrests or who intrude on the space next to them to buy an extra seat. If the flight isn't oversold and a second seat is available, the flier can get a refund.
"We could no longer ignore complaints from customers who traveled without full access to their seats," the airline's website says.
Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, has a problem with what he calls the "fat tax."
"We think it's bad policy," says Macsata, whose group suggests airlines set aside one or two rows for fliers who are tall, overweight or who have disabilities — those who "don't fit into the standard cookie-cutter, coach-class seat."
Counter says the policies at United and Southwest offer fairly objective criteria to deal with touchy situations.
"It is a delicate balancing act of how do you meet the passenger's needs while being fair to other passengers on the plane," he says.
In the end, some flights or sections of the cabin are dominated by one group or another, even without an official policy.
"I think it happens on its own in some instances," says AirTran's White, noting that few children are likely to fly the shuttles that ferry business fliers up and down the East Coast, while flights headed to Orlando's amusement parks are full of families.
Southwest, which has an open-seating policy, also lets families with young children who aren't in the first group to board, get on right after.
"They end up sitting together," spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger says. "This works for Southwest, and we are not currently considering changes to this process."