United Airlines just announced a new dynamic seat map feature that will make it easier for families to sit together, regardless of which fare class they booked. It’s a move that could signal rapid changes in how airlines handle family seating policies.
Starting in early March, United will unveil the new seat map online; it will highlight adjacent seats at the time of booking for groups traveling with children and immediately confirm that children under 12 years old will get a seat next to an adult in their party at no additional cost. In addition to not separating small children from their parents, it’s a move that will help families save money: Typically, if seat selection isn’t complimentary, the fee for choosing a spot in advance ranges from $10 to $100 depending on the airline, route, and fare type, which can add up quickly, especially for large families.
According to a press release issued by United, the new feature “reviews all available free Economy seats and then opens complimentary upgrades to available Preferred Seats, if needed.”
The airline added that in instances where “adjacent seats are not available prior to travel—due to things like last-minute bookings, full flights or unscheduled aircraft changes—United’s new policy also lets customers switch for free to a flight to the same destination with adjacent seat availability in the same cabin.” Unlike the current policy, where customers with basic economy tickets are charged same-day change fees and differences in fare, customers who are changing tickets so their family can sit together won’t be charged if there is a difference in fare price between the original and new flights.
In August 2020, United was the first airline to announce it was permanently ditching change fees on standard economy and premium class tickets for travel within the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, effective immediately. Within the span of about 48 hours, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Alaska Airlines announced similar changes. It’s likely that other airlines will follow suit this time, too, though not necessarily because United spearheaded a movement.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a notice to airlines asking them to create policies that would allow children, age 13 or younger, to be seated adjacent to the adult they’re traveling with at no additional cost. The DOT said it would give airlines four months from the date of the notice to re-evaluate their policies—after which time, the agency would decide whether official regulations would be adopted “to ensure airlines’ seating policies and practices are not barriers to a young child being seated next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult.”
Southwest Airlines, an airline that doesn’t assign seats but rather assigns travelers a boarding group—A, B, and C—and allows them to choose whatever seat is still available when they board, announced in December 2022 that it was experimenting with allowing families to board earlier. In January, the airline continued to experiment with making their boarding process friendlier to families—previously, the airline had allowed families with children six years old and younger to board between groups A and B. Now the range includes children up to 13 years old.