Saturday, October 31, 2009

bmibaby – deliberately splitting up families and seating children out of reach?

bmibaby logo

Something is rotten in the state of Derby ... to be precise, Castle Donnington where bmibaby are headquartered.

The three of us travelled across from Belfast International to Birmingham with bmibaby on Tuesday for a half term family visit. Three of us on the one booking. Checking in online, Cheryl and I were given D and E seats in one row, while Littl’un had the C seat across the aisle in the row behind. A woman noticed what had happened – I was going to sit in Littl’un’s allocated seat – and volunteered to swap so we could all sit together.

Seemed strange that a child of four travelling with adults would be allocated a seat in a different row. bmibaby’s booking form captures the age of children (they call them “kids”) at the time of booking.

Checking in for the way home, we experienced another variation. Cheryl got seat 15C, Littl’un was placed over the aisle in 15D and I was condemned to the back corner 24F. Another family with three children and two parents was spread across three different rows scattered throughout the aircraft.

It’s not a matter of turning up late to check-in and finding no suitable sets of seats available. Online check-in happens hours and even days before check-in closes.

This morning at Gate 41 in Birmingham airport’s Terminal 1, bmibaby’s gate staff were busy ensuring that everyone who had checked in online could “comfortably” fit their luggage “into the bmibaby airport hand baggage gauge” before boarding – single item per person, no larger than 55cm x 40cm x 20cm – thus squeezing an extra £30/€30 out of anyone who hadn’t read or believed their paperwork and whose oversized bags would have to be carried in the aircraft hold.

When asked about families being split up by the online check in process, the same ground crew suggested that families should pay the £3.99/€5 per person charge when booking to pre-assign a contiguous block of seats.

It feels like a recent problem. We’ve been travelling over with Littl’un via bmibaby to Birmingham since she was born, and the online check-in seat allocation seems to have become less capable in the last few months. It never used to split us up as a family. Smells of profiteering by the budget airline with the 65p/minute customer service line.

Once onboard, flight crew were a bit more helpful, suggesting that the answer was to wait until everyone was boarded and then find any spare seats, or negotiate with other passengers. The family of five did just that, eventually managing to get all five of them into the one row.

If parents didn’t use their common sense to override bmibaby’s crazy seat allocation algorithm (which seems to ignore the age of young passengers that has been captured at time of booking), would it be safe for a four year old to sit in the row behind her parents, or across the aisle?

After all, I’ve listened to the safety announcement often enough to remember that it explains that if you are travelling with small children: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping children with theirs”. How would I do that across an aisle or reaching into the row behind?

The Civil Aviation Authority has something to say on the matter too. (Thanks Susan for the link!)

Family Groups

CAA guidelines ask airlines to develop procedures for the seat allocation of family groups, particularly when a group includes children. It is probable that family group members would seek each other out should an emergency evacuation be required, an action that could adversely affect the passenger flow rates towards emergency exits and might seriously affect the outcome of an evacuation.

Additionally, children and infants should be seated where they can be adequately supervised by an accompanying adult in the event of turbulence or a decompression in the cabin ...

Children, accompanied by adults, should ideally be seated in the same seat row as the adult ...

Seat allocation procedures for family groups and suitable seating arrangements for large parties of children should reflect the above criteria.

Whenever small numbers of infants and children are travelling together, the airline should make every effort to ensure that they are allocated seats where they can be readily supervised by the responsible accompanying adult in both normal and abnormal conditions.

I’m not sure that bmibaby’s current approach to automatic seat allocation for four year olds fulfils the letter or the spirit of the CAA’s guidance. It’ll be interesting to see what bmibaby have to say. (Booking G18WCX in case you want to investigate.)

Update - bmibaby responded.


Unknown said...

Good post Alan - We've traveled as a family on most of the airlines and in general I think it has got much worse over the past couple of years.

From the rubbish online booking sites, the annoying airline policies, the crap facilities in the airports to the totally illogical security procedures it is almost always a painful experience.

There is no additional cost to the airline in selecting your seats next to each other when you check in if a block of seats is available so charging for that is incredibly cynical. Doubly so if the computer deliberately splits your group up so as to encourage you to pay the premium.

I'll be interested to hear what (if anything) BMI have to say.

Timothy Belmont said...

It's all about generating every last drop of profit for them, isn't it?

It doesn't bother me because I travel solo most of the time; however I naturally understand families and others' wishes to be seated together.

I think it's a bit unethical of these airlines; and it isn't just BMI! I think Thos. Cook Airlines are at it too.


Anonymous said...

I was travelling in July when they had just introduced the extra charge at boarding to have your bag stowed if it doesn't fit 'comfortably in the little tester thing. People were completely stunned that an airline could suddenly begin enforcing a piece of guidance that had never been enforced before AND that they let you get all the way to the point of boarding to point it out to you so that you have no choice but to pay the extra. Surely at security the size of your bag could be checked, giving you time to decide how best to deal with the situation. Also one woman had no credit card, only cash and they were refusing to let her pay by cash. It was so ludicrous to see their absolute inability to deal with the reality of life. I was getting echoes of "Computer says noooo." To top it all off it held the flight up considerably and when the pilot introduced himself he made sure to say he was sorry about the delay, which was due to the introduction of a new bag policy which he personally did not agree with and was i the process of challenging at a senior level. So much shameless opportunism...

declanh said...

Treated in similar fashion by "Thomas Cook airlines" during the summer. Despite checking in way in advance they separated 2 parents + 6 year old (i ended up sitting with strangers)... paid surcharge on way home to guaranteed seats together... but major bust up on way home with family of five (3 kids all separated - and they were allocated five random seats around the plane).

If you ask me this is purely a ruse to get more money out of people on the grounds of seating together...

You would be amazed if a restaurant wanted to surcharge for a group to sit together - so why is it somehow ok on a plane....

Holidays from Belfast Airport said...

That's terrible, I didn't think they would do this