Increasingly, budget and some mainline airlines have been charging for seat assignments, hoping passengers will pony up to stay together and avoid the risk of being scattered about the plane.
Britain's air safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, has now studied the practice, and recommended that airlines be required to seat families and groups together without fee, even if seats are not assigned in advance.
The CAA says that when families and groups are split, it adds time to deplaning and boarding as they try to find each other or to sort possessions, and most importantly, it is a safety issue because family members are likely to be trying to find each other rather than heading straight to evacuation.
Airlines are widely believed to purposely split groups to encourage them to pay up; CAA found that one in five passengers was affected that way, and one in three on Ryanair, even though Ryanair requires children under 12 to be seated with a family or group adult.
CAA also found another evacuation issue; it's studied a number of emergencies in which passengers held each other up from getting off the plane by first trying to retrieve possessions from the overhead bins. “Passengers seemed to be more concerned with their… possessions rather than their own safety or the safety of fellow passengers,” the report says, and suggests central locking of the overheads during taxi, take-off and landing. And, of course, emergencies.