Some Airlines Finally Offer Free ‘Kid-Friendly’ Seat Assignments
Last updated March 23, 2023
One of the biggest challenges when flying with children is trying to book adjacent seats. No parent wants their kids sitting with strangers in some other part of the plane.
Some families will pay more to guarantee seats together. Some balk at the higher cost. Others take their chances at the airport—hoping to change seat assignments at the ticket counter or negotiate with other passengers onboard to switch.
Some major U.S. airlines have promised to guarantee family seating—if possible—at no additional cost. These policies were announced shortly after President Biden’s State of the Union Address, which called for the elimination of junk fees, and signals from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that it would start the process of making a rule about seating children with their parents.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
The DOT’s Airline Family Seating Dashboard, launched March 6, shows that only three of the top 10 U.S. airlines currently meet DOT guidelines for getting a green checkmark—Alaska, American, and Frontier. These carriers guarantee adjacent seats at no additional cost for all types of fares for children 13 and under flying with an accompanying adult. That guarantee is part of each airline’s customer service plan, subjecting it to DOT enforcement action if they fail to deliver.
“Parents traveling with young kids should be able to sit together without an airline forcing them to pay junk fees,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement announcing the new dashboard. “We have been pressing airlines to guarantee family seating without tacking on extra charges, and now we’re seeing some airlines start to make this common-sense change. All airlines should do this promptly, even as we move forward to develop a rule establishing this as a requirement across the board.”
United Airlines, the first carrier to announce the new seating policy in February, does not have a green checkmark on the DOT’s dashboard because its policy does not meet all of the government’s requirements. DOT told Checkbook that United has taken “a positive first step” with new tools that make it easier for families with children under 12 to sit together—but the airline does not meet the age requirements (13 and under) and has not included its family seating plan in its customer service guidelines, as required to get a green checkmark.
Under DOT guidelines, an airline with a guaranteed seating policy for children can require both the adult and accompanying child be on the same reservation, and condition the guarantee on adjacent seats being available at the time of booking in the selected class, and as long as a different aircraft model isn’t substituted for the flight.
Andrew Applebaum, legal counsel for Flyersrights.org, called the dashboard “very helpful,” but he said he’s “disappointed” that free family seating is not the industry standard. The airlines “should not be profiting off of separating children from their parents on planes,” he told Checkbook.
But this is about more than money. Consumer advocates say it’s also about safety: If there’s an emergency evacuation, parents who are separated from their children might go against the flow of passengers in the aisle to help their kids, putting lives at risk.
Not Quite There Yet
The new seating programs at Alaska, American, Frontier, and United should make it easier for families who fly together; enabling them to book adjacent seats for their children during the booking process.
When those seats aren’t available, American and United said their reservation systems will try to find them prior to flights. If they cannot locate adjacent seats, American and United said they will offer to book families on the next available flights for no additional cost or refund the total purchase price of tickets, if requested.
“We’re moving in a positive direction,” said Charlie Leocha, president of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United. “We'll see how it turns out. No one can make things more complicated than an airline.”
Because the airlines with new family seating policies are implementing them voluntarily, each has its own rules. For example, the age of a qualifying child is 14 and younger at American, 13 or younger with Alaska and Frontier, and under 12 at United. That puts the burden on parents to check those policies before booking, Leocha said.
Southwest, which has a red “X” on the DOT dashboard, does not offer seat assignments, but does have “family boarding,” which happens after the “A” group has boarded. Up to two adults traveling with a child six years old or younger may board during family boarding.
Breeze Airways, a start-up not yet listed on the DOT dashboard, allows adults traveling with children 12 or younger to choose adjacent seats for free in the designated “family section” when they book their tickets.
A Call for Congressional Action
The Department of Transportation has started the process of issuing a rule that would require every airline to guarantee parents that they can sit next to their children age 13 and under for free if adjacent seats are available when they book.
Consumer advocates want Congress to pass a law that requires DOT to develop a family seating rule, so that the rulemaking process could not be stopped or reversed by future administrations, as was done by former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao under the Trump administration.
“We always want to give credit to airlines that do the right thing, and several of them seem to have stepped up and put good policies in place, and that's great,” said Bill McGee, senior fellow for Aviation and Travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “But the bottom line is these agreements are written in sand, so it’s not a long-term solution. We need to have legislation and regulation in place so that we can ensure that the rules are consistent and that they're permanent and they can't be rolled back.”
In February, Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the Families Fly Together Act, legislation that would prohibit airlines from imposing any fees for families that want to sit together during a flight.
“Airline executives have been taking consumers for a ride, charging exorbitant fees as they provide lackluster service, but now this paid vacation is coming to an end,” said Sen. Markey. “Children and parents shouldn’t have to choose between unaffordable fees or the separation anxiety of flying alone.”
The airlines have always opposed increased regulation. When Checkbook asked Airlines for America (a trade group that represents Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and United) about proposed legislation, a spokesperson responded that its member airlines “already work to accommodate customers who are traveling together, especially those traveling with children, and will continue to do so.”
Tips for Flying with Children
If you’re planning a trip with the kids—especially one during vacation season or around holidays—book as early as possible. Passenger volumes on domestic airlines are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, which means flights fill up quickly. Even with airlines that promise family-friendly policies can’t do much for you when there aren’t seats available.
The Points Guy has an airline-by-airline guide to family seating policies. It also provides tips for families planning to fly on airlines that do not offer family-seating guarantees:
Avoid saver or basic fares because they often do not offer complimentary seat selection.
If you are unable to get your family’s seats together at the time of booking, call the airline and speak with a reservations agent to determine the best course of action.
Keep checking seat availability in the months and weeks leading up to your flight, especially in the final week before your trip and again 24 hours before your flight. These are the times when people make last-minute changes or elite flyers receive automatic seat upgrades, freeing up space on the seating map.
If you arrive at the airport and still haven’t been able to secure your family’s seats together, politely ask a gate agent or flight attendant for help. You may still have the option to pay for an upgrade, or they can assist you by finding open seats. They’ll be much more willing to help if you approach them with kindness.
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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.