My mom’s in a wheel­chair. Why can’t I sit with her?

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - By Christo­pher El­liott King Fea­tures Christo­pher El­liott is the om­buds­man for Na­tional Geo­graphic Trav­eler mag­a­zine and the au­thor of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Trav­eler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, el­liott.org, or email him at [email protected]

A: Amer­i­can Air­lines shouldn’t have sep­a­rated you from your mother. And it def­i­nitely shouldn’t have charged you to sit with her on your re­turn trip. So why did it? In a word: money.

Amer­i­can, like most other ma­jor car­ri­ers, charges for as­signed seat­ing. If you want a con­firmed seat as­sign­ment be­fore your flight, you’ll need to pay for it.

“At the time of your re­quest, all ad­ja­cent seat­ing was ei­ther re­served for other cus­tomers, ‘blocked’ to al­low our air­port per­son­nel to han­dle un­ex­pected seat­ing is­sues that may arise on the day of de­par­ture, or they were part of our Main Cabin Ex­tra or Pre­ferred Seats travel op­tions,” an Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive ex­plained in an email to you. Maybe. But still, sep­a­rat­ing you from your mother — who was in a wheel­chair — seems cold­hearted.

For­tu­nately, Amer­i­can has a Spe­cial As­sis­tance

I re­cently flew from Dal­las to Paris on Amer­i­can Air­lines. I was trav­el­ing with my mother, who uses a wheel­chair. Amer­i­can Air­lines usu­ally al­lows me to sit with her. But on this flight, the air­line gave us sep­a­rate seats.

I con­tacted the air­line when we ar­rived in Paris and asked to be seated next to her. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive helped me get two seats next to each other. When I re­turned to the States, I found an $85 charge for the as­signed seat. I didn’t re­quest, or au­tho­rize, this charge.

Amer­i­can Air­lines won’t re­fund the fee, say­ing that it costs more for “pre­ferred” seat­ing in econ­omy class. I’ve tried nu­mer­ous times to get a re­fund, but the air­line re­fuses. Can you help me?

— Bo Bao, Sugar Land, Texas

depart­ment that you could have con­tacted be­fore your de­par­ture: www.aa.com /i18n/travel-info/spe­cial -as­sis­tance/spe­cial -as­sis­tance.jsp. They could have made ar­range­ments to have you sit next to your mother.

You shouldn’t have as­sumed that Amer­i­can would let you sit with your mother. We live in a time when chil­dren are sep­a­rated from their par­ents, on a plane and off, so it’s im­por­tant not to take any­thing for granted. In­ter­est­ingly, Congress passed leg­is­la­tion to keep fam­i­lies to­gether on planes, but the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion hasn’t cre­ated a reg­u­la­tion, which is nec­es­sary. So, for now, air­lines can still sep­a­rate fam­i­lies.

You han­dled this case by the book. You sent a brief, po­lite email to Amer­i­can, ask­ing for a re­fund. You ap­pealed to an ex­ec­u­tive. (I list the names, num­bers and email ad­dresses of the Amer­i­can Air­lines ex­ec­u­tives on my non­profit con­sumer-ad­vo­cacy site: www.el­liott.org/com­pany -con­tacts/amer­i­can. The air­line didn’t move. In this sit­u­a­tion, al­though Amer­i­can is cor­rectly fol­low­ing its pol­icy, it is also do­ing some­thing morally ques­tion­able. The air­line didn’t just sep­a­rate you from your mother, but from a par­ent who needed spe­cial care. That’s cruel.

I con­tacted Amer­i­can Air­lines on your be­half. It noted it has “in­ter­nal pro­cesses” in place, both in the days lead­ing up to the de­par­ture date as well as at the air­port, to as­sist fam­i­lies in ob­tain­ing seat­ing to­gether, even if they didn’t buy pre­ferred seats. Amer­i­can re­funded you the $85 fee.

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