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What does the airline owe me if a screaming infant ruins my flight?

A reader says, “I recently spent eight hours on a transatlantic flight in which an infant two rows ahead of me screamed the entire time. When I asked the flight attendant to move the family with the screaming infant away from my section, I was told that the airline could not force the family to move. The flight attendant was also unwilling to move me into an empty seat in first class (away from the infant) because I had purchased a coach ticket. The screaming infant ruined my flight. Do I have any recourse now? Should the airline have moved me to a different seat as I requested?”

At this point, your chances of legal recourse are slim. You might want to submit a formal complaint, and the airline might offer you something as a “gesture of good will,” but it doesn’t have to do anything at all.

Airlines have a legal responsibility to fulfill the terms of the ticket: to get you safely to your destination. If an airline fails to do this in a timely manner, for reasons other than weather or some external “force majeure” problem, you’re probably due some compensation. Federal law specifies compensation when you’re bumped due to overbooking, and the airlines’ own policy statements require them to provide meals and overnight accommodations in cases of extended delays. While no specific rules or regulations cover other circumstances, general contract law provides adequate recourse for consumers.

Although airlines are required to provide a seat, however, nothing entitles you to a specific seat or a seat that is not near a crying baby–or, for that matter, a seat that isn’t next to someone who hasn’t showered in a week or who chews gum noisily. Flight attendants are supposed to solve such problems with tact, on the spot where possible. In such cases, the normal solution is to move you to a different seat. But when all other seats are full, there isn’t much you or the airline can do.

On your flight, the attendant should have moved you to that available first-class seat regardless of the fare you paid. I’ve heard of many such instances when a coach passenger in a bad seating situation was allowed to move to first class if no coach seats were available. It was your bad luck to run into a stickler for details. But now, after the fact, you can’t do anything about that.

My suggestions:

  • Write a formal complaint letter to the airline, noting the distress you experienced and the attendant’s refusal to move you to an available seat in first class. Ask for some modest compensation–something like a discount voucher toward a future flight or, say, 5,000 additional frequent flyer miles.
  • If you get no reply, or a brushoff, you might think about taking the airline to small claims court. But your chances there would be iffy–and maybe not worth the hassle. It’s your call.

This Q&A is part of Ed Perkins’ new weekly series, AskEd & AnswerEd, exclusively for If you have a question or think you were mistreated during a recent travel experience, ask Ed how to fix the problem. E-mail your question to

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