Man claims Delta "held him hostage" to sit beside his child

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Business Chronicle posted an article with the following headline: "Man says Delta charged him $88 ‘ransom’ to sit next to 4-year-old daughter." The term "ransom" immediately made me think there was more to this story. So I checked out the blog post linked by the article. After reading the first part of Frank Strong's post on Sword and the Script, I really was not sure what happened. He seemed to be claiming that Delta charged him to change seat assignments. I fly Delta almost exclusively and I have never paid to change seats or even select seats other than Economy Comfort (now Delta Comfort+). I know that airlines assign seats automatically, but I always have had the option - and taken advantage of it - to choose my seats at booking. I know that some airlines charge for this; I recently booked a flight on British Airways and they wanted $99 per segment to make a seat assignment so I passed. Fortunately, Mr. Strong clarified the situation in a comment:

2) At three points I had an opportunity to select seats on a digital interface, but not seats together. Not even Economy Plus for an incremental fee at online check-in.
3) The ticket agent — the first human interface — could and did put us together in Economy Plus for the incremental fee. I don’t think it’s okay to separate parents from children - or a guardian from special needs - but at that point, I’m thinking path of least resistance. I just want to get there and keep my child happy.
4) When I walked on the plane — there were plenty of seats at any price point. No one would have to move. No one who selected a seat 5 months ago would be inconvenienced. As I stated above in the original post, the airline could have put us together — no problems. It didn’t...why? That’s why I wrote this post.
— Frank Strong, Sword and the Script blog

I am still not 100% clear on the sequence of events - I am not sure how either Mr. Strong or his daughter was booked into an Comfort+ seat without knowing those seats require a separate charge - but I think I generally follow now. He appears to have chosen to go ahead and book a set next to his daughter in Comfort+ for the extra fee which was made clear to him. I understand he did this for certainty and that is understandable. I often pay more in my travel arrangements for flexibility or certainty. However, this is not "holding [him] hostage." Frankly, I consider that an inflammatory and irresponsible headline and, with all due respect, untrue. He was never was forced to do anything unreasonable.

Flight seat availability as posted by Frank Strong on Sword and the Script blog (click to enlarge)

I completely understand that a parent wants to sit with his child but he notes he booked his flight on Sunday and flew on Thursday. Whenever the time between ticket purchase and flying is short, seat assignments are more limited. The seat assignment graphic he included with his article only shows two seats together in premium locations such as Comfort+ and exit rows. He notes that when he boarded the aircraft, there were "plenty of seats at any price point" and that no other passengers would have to have been inconvenienced to accommodate his seating request. While I do agree with Mr. Strong's contention that airlines should be able to better facilitate seating parents and children together, we don't know why all the seats that were empty upon boarding were shown as unavailable prior to the day of the flight. Without that information, someone outside the company cannot definitively say that Delta could just have simply seated Mr. Strong with his daughter. If seats were blocked for Medallion members or to support some other loyalty perk - or even to encourage upgrading to enhanced products - asking Delta to empower their agents to have the discretion to make exceptions in advance for families is reasonable. However, expecting that to include no-charge upgrades to enhanced products is not reasonable.

Much of the debate on this incident rests on perception. Mr. Strong raises the possibility that Delta intentionally created the situation so a passenger was "forced" to pay extra to sit beside his child. Part of this assumption could be that one might consider the Comfort+ seats as part of Economy because they are physically in the same cabin and, for the most part, offer the same physical seats (though generally with greater pitch, or legroom). However, enhanced economy sections are a distinct service product with different amenities. Having differentiated product tiers is not an unusual or even unethical pricing strategy, whether in commercial aviation or any other business. In fact, providing extra value to the customer at a premium price is very common. Because enhanced economy is a different product than standard economy a parent can't reasonably expect to be comped seats in those sections as a matter of course. I don't think Mr. Strong would expect a complimentary upgrade to business or first classes if those were the only two available adjacent seats on the aircraft; Comfort+ is no different.

A strong implication in Mr. Strong's post and by some commenters is that airlines are intentionally seating parents and children apart so they can upsell them to premium seating options. This simply makes no logical sense. First, if there are two adjacent seats open at the time of booking, they can be booked. It's that simple. I have never heard of an airline forcibly preventing a customer from booking seats together if they were available (availability including, as noted above, reasonable blockages to effect loyalty programs or pricing strategies). To suggest that airline pricing strategies and booking procedures are purely geared to targeting parents is downright laughable. If airlines wanted to play games with the seating assignment process, there are far more profitable ways to do it than to target the minority of passengers traveling with children. As for the suggestion that airlines have a "reputation" for "targeting parents," maybe that perception is partly born of bloggers and other observers using terms like "hostage" or "ransom" as part a blog post suggesting a hard-to-believe conspiracy theory. I am glad that Delta is trying to work with Mr. Strong, but he has offered no firm evidence that the airline done anything inappropriate or unethical.