U.S. Airlines Told to Sit Families Together Free of Charge

The Department of Transportation has issued a notice to carriers asking that they ensure young children are seated with accompanying adults, with no added fees.

U.S. Airlines Told to Sit Families Together Free of Charge

Why would any airline seat a toddler next to a stranger?

Photo by Shutterstock

Earlier this year, my husband and I and our two young kids (ages 3 and 6) were in Hawai‘i getting ready to board a flight from Maui to Oʻahu. As we approached the gate to scan our boarding passes, I glanced at our seat assignments only to realize none of them were anywhere near one another. I looked at the gate agent and said, “How is this possible?”

Well, in 2016, Congress approved an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that required carriers to ensure that children under the age of 13 are able to sit next to a family member at no additional cost. But in 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) determined that the low number of complaints did not warrant instituting a formal policy on the matter and came to a similar conclusion after reviewing complaints again in 2019.

Now, however, the DOT is taking a firmer stance on this issue. On July 8, its Office of Aviation Consumer Protection issued a notice to the airlines asking that they do everything that they can to ensure that children ages 13 or younger be seated next to an accompanying adult free of charge—meaning families shouldn’t have to pay extra to sit together.

The challenge for families is that not all flight bookings come with the ability to select seats in advance for no added fee. For instance, basic economy fares or seats on ultra-low-cost carrier flights often don’t include the ability to select a seat ahead of time either at all or unless you pay extra to do so. The result is that families often have to pay more to make sure they sit together, or risk being seated apart.

But within the next four months, the DOT said that it will start monitoring the airlines to see if they have actually made strides to ensure that families are seated together at no extra cost. At that time, the agency will decide whether official regulation will 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.”

The DOT issued the notice despite the fact that the number of family seating complaints it receives remains low compared to other flier complaints filed with the agency. “However, the Department recognizes that even one complaint is significant for the impacted travelers,” the DOT stated.

In the meantime, the agency offers this advice to families to make sure they are seated together:

Know your airline’s seating policies

Each U.S. carrier has a slightly different approach to seating, ranging from specific fare classes that include advance seat assignment options to open seating, such as with Southwest, which allows families with children ages 6 and younger to board after Boarding Group A, but before Groups B and C. The DOT outlines each carrier’s policy via the links below.

Book as early as possible

The earlier families book, the more open seats they will have to choose from. This will help to ensure that they can reserve seats next to each other.

Avoid basic economy and ultra-low-cost fares if possible

Basic economy seats are often the most affordable but that’s because they typically don’t come with the option to select a specific seat on the flight, or that option costs extra.

Contact the airline directly

If you would like to make sure that your family is sitting together, contact the airline in advance to sort out the seating arrangements. This includes families traveling with children under two, who will be flying as a lap child (meaning a separate seat is not purchased for the child). It’s important to make sure that the lap child is on the reservation even if they don’t have a seat assigned to them.

Perhaps I should have heeded some of the above advice before our interisland Hawai‘i flight. At least our story had a decent outcome (albeit after a fair amount of stress and frustration). Since the flight was already boarding and the gate agent was the only one at our gate, she sent us to another gate to work it out with the agents there. After begging a few people to let us jump to the front of the line at the neighboring gate, we hurriedly told them our situation and the best they could do was get the three-year-old into a seat next to my husband, and the six-year-old into a seat in the row behind me. Once onboard, we asked for a seat swap for the six-year-old, and since it was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, the woman in the seat next to mine kindly obliged—so at least each kid was with one parent.

But like most parents who have ever been in this situation, I was pretty upset at the time and kept wondering how a policy that allows for minors as young as my three-year-old daughter to sit alone is even legal. Perhaps now, this will be less likely to happen again. And next time I will check our seat assignments much sooner than upon boarding.

>> Next: 9 Smart Ways to Keep Your Family Seated Together on a Flight

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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