“Why have they split up my family on the plane?!”

  • 04 Aug, 2023
  • Franki Napolitano

Why have they split up my family on the plane?

Whilst travelling, there’s a high chance you may have heard unhappy groups asking this very question in your airport or on your flight. Reports of airlines such as Ryanair, United Airlines, Jetstar and Delta all being accused of splitting up families on a flight are apparent from a quick Google search.

Many victims claim they are being penalised for not paying for allocated seating; which is usually an added cost on top of the ticket price you’ve already paid…but is this necessarily always the case?

What do the officials say about random seat allocations on planes?

According to the the Civil Aviation Authority, “The seating of children close by their parents or guardians should be the aim of airline seat allocation procedures for family groups and large parties of children

“Young children and infants who are accompanied by adults should ideally be seated in the same seat row as the adult. Where this is not possible, children should be separated by no more than one seat row from accompanying adults. This is because the speed of an emergency evacuation may be affected by adults trying to reach their children.”

Which is fair and in most cases, the airlines do adhere to this. The problem lies where two parents are given seats at opposite ends of the aircraft, with one of them with their child and the other on their own, or with their other child.

So it reality, no this doesn’t seem fair at all. Especially when they arrive for the flight to find that it isn’t that busy so therefore actually sitting closer together shouldn’t be an issue…

Why has my airline split up our seats on the plane?

Statistically, people are more likely to avoid booking a middle seat and opt for the aisle or window seat instead. In turn, this creates more available middle seats than the others that need to be filled.

This is often perpetuated by airlines like Ryanair that allow you to pre purchase your seats and self allocate up to 60 days before the flight. In comparison, those who opt not to pre purchase are only able to check in 24 hours before the flight, usually meaning there aren’t many full rows of seating left.

“Some random seat passengers are confused by the appearance of empty seats beside them when they check-in up to four days prior to departure. The reason they can’t have these window or aisle seats is that these are more likely to be selected by reserved seat passengers many of whom only check-in 24 hours prior to departure. Since our current load factor is 95%, we have to keep these window and aisle seats free to facilitate those customers who are willing to pay (from €/£4) for them”.

– Statement from Ryanair website regarding the issue (Jan 2019).

We should include that while the price of a seat does start at around £4, that would usually end up being for the aforementioned middle seats in rows 18-33. If you want to make sure you will sit with your child, parents are required to reserve a seat (pay for it), but that does include 4 free childrens reserved seating.

However, if there are no seats available in rows 18-33, then they can open up seats in rows 11-15.

Just a quick look at Twitter brings up reams of unhappy passengers blaming the airlines for splitting up families, partners and friends…


Check-in times and seating price and policies

If you check-in early, you can usually sit together for free! But the trick is to do it as soon as the check-in opens. Most airlines will be using fear tactics to make sure you buy reserved seating. But if you do check-in really early, most of the time you will be able to sit with your family or friends.

But remember, there’s no guarantee of this because a lot of people tend to reserve their seats so it can be difficult to find seats next to each other. So have a look at the check-in times below for the different airlines and the seat reservation cost.

Airline Online Check-in Reservation seat cost Families travel policies
British Airways 24hrs before departure You have the option to pick a seat completely free of charge, but if you want to pick a specific one, then you’ll need to pay for it. It’s advised to book seats in advance. They will try their best to have you seated with your family but it’s not guaranteed. However, anyone under 12 will be seated with one adult from the booking.
If you’re travelling with an infant (under 2) you can reserve a seat for yourself and family free of charge!
Air France 30 hours before departure You can choose a seat for free from the seats available but if you want a specific one, you’d have to pay a fee If you’re with a child under 14. They will reserve your seats free of charge 2 days before
easyJet 30 days before departure You will be randomly assigned a seat for free but you can pay extra to pick your favourite.
First-row seat (extra legroom) for £12.99 – 39.99
Upfront/overwing (extra legroom) – £7.99 – 34.99
Other seats – £0.99 – 8.99
They recommend that the easiest way for everyone to sit together is for you to check in as early as possible. They will try to ensure you all sit together!
Emirates 48 hours before departure For most ticket types, you are allowed to reserve your seat for free at the time of booking. But check online to ensure if this option is available for your fare. If you’re travelling with an infant, you’re allowed to pick your seat free of charge from regular seats, preferred and or twin seats.
They will try their best to make sure your family sits together but they can’t promise. But if children want to sit next to the adult, they do get a 50% discount on both regular and preferred seats.
American Airlines 24 hours before departure You are allowed to book your seat for free whenever you book your tickets. But if you want to choose a seat in a more favourable location, you can pay extra for it.  If you’re flying with someone who’s under 15 then they will try their best to ensure you sit together. If that’s not possible, they will make sure at least one adult is seated with the child
Ryanair 24 hours before departure You cannot select your seat, you’ll be randomly assigned one.
Extra legroom seats – £14. 00
Front Seats – £7.00
Standard Seats – £3.00
If you want to ensure you get to sit with your children, one of the adults must pay to reserve the seat if the child is under 12. But after you’ve reserved yours, you are able to reserve four children’s seats for free.
KLM 30 hours before departure but if you’re flying to the US, then you can only do it 24 hrs before You may pick any seat you like free of charge when check-in opens. But if you wanted to guarantee a specific seat, there is a fee Children under 12 will automatically be seated next to their families with no extra fee. If this isn’t possible, they will make sure at least one adult sits with the child
Norwegian Airline 48 hours before departure You’re allowed to pick your own seat in all the tickets fares except for LowFare. For LowFare, the prices are £8 – 45. In order for you to be seated with your family, either book a ticket that lets you pick your seat or if you book the LowFare option, you should pay to reserve your seat.
Jet2 28 days before departure You’ll be assigned a seat but if you want to pick a seat of your liking, you have to pay a small fee. You’ll have to pay for seating if you want to sit next to your children

Why do most airlines do this?

The first and most obvious reason is money! From a recent study done by Watchdog, they found this to be especially the case with Ryanair as they supposedly use randomly allocated seating but the process isn’t actually random at all. Ryanair, however, kept denying this. Until, Dr Jennifer Rogers who is a director of statistical consultancy at Oxford University actually ran a test on their seating allocation.

In order to test her theory, she booked groups of four individuals on a Ryanair flight and she found that all of them were allocated a middle seat. She drew the conclusion that the chances of this actually happening ‘randomly’ is one in 540 million! She said statistically you stood a better chance of winning the national lottery ten times!

Soon after her finding, Ryanair admitted that they did withhold aisle and window seats for those people that would be willing to pay more.

So should you really be paying extra for allocated seating?

Which?’s finding shows that of the people who refused to pay extra for seating, 86% of them ended up being seated together anyway! However, this definitely depends on different airlines as some are better than others at doing this. Aer Lingus lets a whopping 96% of people stay sitting together despite not paying extra for seating. Their second lowest was WizzAir which allowed 73% to sit together which is still not too bad. Of course, the worst one was Ryanair, allowing only 46% to sit together. So Ryanair is the one to stay away from but with the others, you’re pretty safe. But do remember, it is still a risk, albeit it is very small with some airlines so think thoroughly when booking.

best airlines for seating families together

Statistics obtained from Which?

Tips to avoid being split up on your flight

  • It is recommended that you book as soon as you can because the earlier you book, the more chances you have of being with your family as there will be more seats to choose from at that time.
  • Pick the right airline as some airlines like Emirates, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways do let you pick the seat for free at the time of booking! So when booking, check your airline’s policy and see if you might get lucky.
  • If you’re travelling with infants, there are usually some perks, like British Airways lets you pick the seat free of charge for not only you but everyone travelling with you! So be sure to be on the lookout for those offers.
  • When booking, try to book your tickets at the same time because most airlines will try their best to ensure you and your family sit together.
  • Always double-check the information about seating before leaving, sometimes the seating can change, even if you have pre-booked for certain reasons. It will be best if you already know this and you can then contact the airline and they will be able to help you.
  • If worst comes to worst and you’re not allocated seats with your children, ask the gate agents and they may be able to change it for you. Even if that doesn’t work, ask the flight attendant for help, they may be able to assist you in changing seats.

We hope these tips help your future travel! Let us know if you have ever been affected by a similar incident to those above? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!

About Franki Napolitano

Working in the travel industry has really opened my eyes to the attitudes, issues and obstacles people can face just trying to go on holiday. Whether it's due to their health, family situations or budgets, travel should be accessible for all. I cover everything from travelling with a disability to how to save money while you travel, hoping to make the holiday process easier for everyone.