[This post was originally published on the Parentonomics blog at Forbes.com on 21st March 2012]
When a parenting blogger goes on vacation, there is always stuff to write about (click here for a taste). Having just spent 10 days with the family in Florida where, apparently, the temperature is a whole three degrees warmer than Toronto, travel will be a theme of my next few posts. More specifically, I'll be concentrating on the business end of the vacation scene.
And where best to start than the airlines. We have travelled on many different airlines. By far the most family friendly is Virgin. I recall, fondly, a trip in Australia where, half an hour into the flight, a flight attendant announced, "whose up for face paints?" where upon all of the children on the flight moved to the back of the aircraft and we didn't see them again until we had to land. You can't get better than that.
This time around, we chose Air Canada; Virgin don't fly between the US and Canada. Our motivation was simple: Air Canada have little screens on the back of the seats. Now we don't need those in these days of iPods and iPads to keep the kids entertained but there is that 30 minute period on take off and landing. More if there are delays on the ground. Apparently, while electronic devices pose a risk to safety, running an screen system to every single seat poses no risk! So we can happily plug children in for the entire flight as soon as we board. There is one wrinkle: they have to have ear buds for takeoff and landing because over the ear headphones pose some other, hard to imagine, risk. [Any airline people, please feel free to enlighten us on those risks in the comments.]
But Air Canada had a surprise for us: you can't specify to be seated with your children. Well, at least not the way we booked our flight. Because we wanted to use some frequent flier points and to leverage a vacation package to Disney, I booked the flight on a third party site. This apparently put us into a cyber black hole as our five tickets could not be recognized as being 'together.' That meant we couldn't choose seats upon booking although that is quite common. That I could live with. But Air Canada allocated seats randomly. That meant all five of us were strewn over the aircraft. Our kids would be sitting separately next to other random people.
Now you might be thinking that my immediate reaction was horror. But not really. I thought, hmm, what a nice start to a vacation to have some other adult, by default, responsible for my children's happiness? Someone else to ask to take to the toilet, work out how to use the inflight entertainment, fill in the immigration forms, order a drink and to clean up said drink when it spilled on them during turbulence. Certainly a great start to the vacation for me. But I'm not sure how others would react to Air Canada doing this to them. And I also figured that this being school holidays, I might end up with some other random kid next to me!
So I called to see what could be done. Apparently, despite booking two months in advance: nothing. I was told that Air Canada didn't release seats for third party bookings until 24 hours before and I should call back then.
And I did. And what could they do? Almost nothing. Because the flight was booked out and everyone had been allocated seats. I say 'almost' because they could get three of us together. The remaining two would be many rows away. I was told that perhaps we could get a better seat allocation at the gate and I should try then.
So I did. But they couldn't change anything because -- and I am not making this up -- they not permitted to give seat assignments to parties with more than four people! Two adults and three kids was not a 'party' they wanted to encourage.
We boarded the plane and said goodbye to our eldest child and to each other. And then I found out where the three of us were sitting: the exit row. Ordinarily, that's great. But there were two problems. First, you can't legally sit kids in the exit row. Air Canada knew they were allocating seats to kids (they took their ages with the booking) but somehow had not told their seat allocation system about that important requirement. But, second, and more importantly, the exit row did not have 'back of the seat' screens so the whole advantage of travelling on Air Canadawas gone. Suffice it to say, this then required everyone to board plane and then for the flight attendants to negotiate some trades. You can imagine that on a flight with families there weren't a lot of single adults or couples without kids who might fill the three exit row seats we had. But they did eventually find two elderly people who were happy to trade and operate the door in case of emergency provided the staff could find overhead compartment space for them. That led to more negotiations.
So what are we to make of all this? The sinister business expectation is that Air Canada don't want to encourage families or, more to the point, do not want to encourage families unless they book directly with Air Canada. For an upcoming trip, we booked directly and you can specify seats with everyone seated together. Air Canada, most likely, get a lower return from third party bookings and I guess this gives them a reason to push people onto their own site.
But think of the cost. Random travellers who book on their site may end up with random children sitting alone next to them. They end up misallocating children to exit rows causing costly delays and work for airline staff. The only winners are the families who book directly with Air Canada who can smugly watch the chaos ensue. That doesn't sound like great business strategy.
The less sinister explanation is that Air Canada have a very poorly executed booking and flight reservation system. Someone, somewhere forgot about families and deep in the code there is no way for Air Canada to sort out the mess. My bias is on incompetent planning rather than evil attempts at price discrimination in these matters.
And so what of the return leg of our flight? I didn't bother to try and get us seated together. We got one adult with our youngest which was good. And as I walked back to the very last row of the plane I saw a woman travelling with three very young children sitting in the exit row. I figured we'd be a little longer before we took off so I plugged in to watch some television on the seat back screen.