Travel Troubleshooter: Change of seating

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 - 12:00 am

My husband, 2-year-old son and I recently flew from Chicago to Phoenix on Spirit Airways. Before we took off, a flight attendant told us that there was a problem with one of the seats, and that another passenger couldn’t use his. We were offered a refund of our son’s ticket and a free round-trip voucher if we would hold our son on our laps in order to free a seat for the man whose seat was not usable.

We agreed, and the flight attendant and gate agent (who had boarded the plane to help resolve the situation) told us that we should talk with the gate agents when we landed in Phoenix to claim our refund and voucher. When we landed, we approached the gate agents. A Spirit employee advised us to call the customer service number. Because it was 1 a.m. and there was no one else with whom we could speak, and we were traveling with an exhausted toddler, we accepted this.

The next evening I called the customer service line and was informed that there was no record of the transaction. In fact, a supervisor chastised me for giving up our son’s seat and told me that because he was over 24 months old it was against FAA regulations to hold him on our laps, even though the flight attendants and gate agent had asked us to. We were told to go back to the airport and speak with staff there to resolve this issue.

We tried speaking with Spirit on our return flight, but we couldn’t find anyone who could help us. We’ve also tried emailing the airline. Nothing seems to be working. Can you help?

– Sarah Dragswiek, Minneapolis

Your story is troubling on many levels. First, there’s the problem of asking you to keep your 2-year-old on your lap. The safest place for your son is in his own seat, and preferably strapped into a car seat. Most airlines require that kids older than 2 have their own seats, so if the tables had been turned, – had you shown up for a flight without a ticket for your son – then the airline might have forced you to pay for another ticket.

In the heat of the moment as the plane is boarding, promises are made and other employees down the line don’t always get the memo. So while the flight attendants were just trying to fix a problem, they ended up creating another problem by failing to give you a written assurance that you’d get a refund and a ticket voucher.

You said a gate agent boarded the flight to fix the problem. That agent could have given you a flight voucher and all the paperwork necessary for a refund. If you could do an instant replay, you might have asked for some kind of assurance in writing.

If someone ever asks you to give up your son’s seat again, be sure to let that employee know he’s over 2 and is required to have his own seat. And remember, you can always say “no” when you’re asked to move. They’re your seats – you paid for them.

I contacted Spirit on your behalf. It refunded your seat and sent you the voucher it had promised.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at chris@elliott.org.

Read more articles by Christopher Elliott



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