Daily Memo: Family Seating In U.S. National Spotlight, Legislation In The Works

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It’s a bewildering scenario: an 11-month-old and 4-year-old seated apart from their parents on a commercial airliner. 

But the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) says it happened aboard a major U.S. carrier in 2021 and is just one of hundreds of similar incidents. 

With family seating complaint data going back to 2017, the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) sent out a warning to airlines last summer: Do “everything in their power” to seat children 13 or younger next to an adult in their party for free. The office said it would monitor airlines’ compliance with this request, and, if warranted, consider regulation. Among the complaints received were reports of airlines declining to provide advance seat assignments guaranteeing an adjacent seat for a child and parent, despite “many” being open at the time of the customer’s request, OACP noted.

Though the total number of family seating complaints represented just 2.4% of air travel service complaints at its peak of 230 in 2019, the socio-cultural hot-button issue gained national attention when President Joe Biden called on the airline industry to make a change in his Feb. 7 State of the Union address, saying, “Baggage fees are bad enough; airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.” 

The complaint total for the category was 165 in 2020 (0.46% of air travel service complaints), and 94 (0.50%) in 2021. The full-year figure has not been released for 2022. Following Biden’s remarks, several carriers addressed their family seating policies, either pointing to existing practices or outlining new procedures.  

United Airlines announced on Feb. 20 it was eliminating fees to book an adjoining seat for children under 12, including in basic economy, and—if needed—offer complimentary upgrades to available preferred seats. The new policy goes as far as offering a free rebook to a different, same-destination flight, with no additional charge even if it’s a higher fare. 

One day later, Frontier Airlines announced it would automatically assign seats based on family member ages before the check-in window opened, ensuring that any child under the age of 14 is seated next to at least one adult in their party. 

Rounding out the flurry of family-friendly announcements, American Airlines on Feb. 28 updated its customer service plan to guarantee children 14 and under would be seated next to at least one adult booked under the same reservation for free, with conditions on availability. 

“Time for more airlines to follow suit,” the President tweeted following American’s announcement. 

Though only two of four of the largest U.S. carriers have announced formal changes thus far, Airlines for America, which counts all four as members, said its airlines “make every effort to accommodate customers traveling together, especially those traveling with children, without additional charges.”

One of those two wrapped up a test program in Atlanta on March 3, under which it piloted enhancements to its boarding—including a new, designated gate area for families and other preboard passengers. In a statement to Aviation Week, Southwest Airlines said it would next evaluate the data collected on each concept. Under its current open boarding procedure, those traveling with children six or younger are permitted to board before the “B” group. 

Regarding its policy for families flying with young children, Delta Air Lines said it uses a multi-layered approach involving technology and training “to ensure children under 13 can be seated adjacent to an accompanying adult,” and that its agents are trained “extensively” to handle family seating situations.

But it appears airline action in response to the July notice was not enough to stave off a mandatory directive—a group of Senators has introduced legislation seeking to prohibit family-adjacent seating fees for children 13 and under, and DOT is done waiting.

“As recently as a month ago, not one U.S. airline guaranteed that a parent and child could be seated next to each other without potentially having to pay extra,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a video posted March 6 announcing a new “Commitment for Fee-Free Family Seating” dashboard.

Tracking 10 U.S. carriers, the dashboard names Alaska Airlines, American and Frontier as the airlines guaranteeing an adjacent seat for children 13 with an adult in their party “at no additional cost for all fare types, subject to limited conditions,” and with the policy formalized in their customer service plan, “so that it is backstopped by U.S. DOT enforcement if they fail to deliver.” The carriers named by DOT on its dashboard as not meeting those terms are Allegiant Air, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United. 

“Since most airlines currently do not guarantee that they will seat a parent and a child together at no extra cost, U.S. DOT has begun work on a rulemaking,” the department said in a March 6 statement. “Because the rulemaking process can be lengthy, the president has called upon Congress to enact legislation, and the administration plans to send Congress proposed legislation in the coming weeks.”

It seems a full circle moment to what OACP described as the response to its investigation on the complaint involving the 11-month-old and 4-year-old children. 

“The airline did not dispute this occurred,” OACP said, “and stated that DOT had yet to put any directives in place for U.S. airlines about family seating.”

Christine Boynton

Christine Boynton covers air transport in the Americas for Aviation Week Network.