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Some airlines may be using algorithms to split up families during flights

Your random airplane seat assignment might not be random at all.

Passengers boarding a Boeing aircraft of the low cost airline carrier Ryanair in Thessaloniki Macedonia Airport, Greece.
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

For most people, the holiday season includes travel, especially with their families. But airlines are reserving an increasing number of seat assignments for those who pay extra, meaning that you may not get to sit next to your traveling companions on a flight unless you’re willing to pay more for the privilege.

A recent investigation by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority found that some airlines go even further, using algorithms to deliberately split up people traveling together to charge them an additional fee to change their seats. According to the Independent, the algorithm recognizes those with the same surnames and splits them up. The study was meant to observe couples, business colleagues, or groups of friends more so than parents and children, as there are specific safety rules when flying with small children.

In a survey of more than 4,200 people conducted by CAA, travelers most frequently cited being split from their party while traveling on Ryanair, but the airline insists that it doesn’t employ a family-splitting algorithm. Ryanair says if a person doesn’t pay for their seat assignment, they are “randomly” assigned, which may result in them not sitting with their party.

But the CAA found that when a passenger flies Ryanair, as compared to other airlines, the likelihood of being separated from their party doubled. According to its study, 18 percent of all flyers surveyed were separated from their traveling companions if they chose to not pay to sit together. For Ryanair, that percentage jumped to 35.

This doesn’t just serve to make passengers pay more for already-expensive travel; it can also impact safety. Another report by the Royal Aeronautical Society Flight Operations Group found that charging traveling companions to sit together, can hinder the emergency evacuation process.

In 2016, the US Congress passed the Families Flying Together Act, which would ensure that kids under the age of 13 would be seated next to their parent, but so far, the Federal Aviation Administration has not drafted new regulations to address the legislation.

Stories of families being separated prior to their flights litter the internet. One blogger recalled, “As we boarded the plane I approached the flight attendants and said, ‘I need your help, my two year old and I are not seated together.’ They laughed and said if I could get someone to change seats we could sit together and that my two year old could sit alone.”

The website Family Vacation Critic offered tips on how to get seated with your family; first on the list is “pay for your seat assignment.” And Spirit Airlines’ director of corporate communications, Misty Pinson, told the Huffington Post that “if families want to ensure that they have seats together, then they must pay for seat assignments.”

UK Parliament member Margot James described the possible algorithmic scheme as “a very cynical, exploitative means … to hoodwink the general public.” In an address to the parliamentary communications committee, she said, “They’ve had the temerity to split the passengers up, and when the family want to travel together they are charged more.”

Frustrations with airlines are exceedingly high in general. Today, airfare includes little more than a literal seat on the plane (although even that is up for debate). Food, a checked bag, and your seat assignment have all become ancillary revenue to help airlines maximize profit. But news that airlines may deliberately be ensuring you won’t get a seat next to your family unless you pay extra just adds fuel to the fire.