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United is Introducing a New Family Seating Policy – Will Other Airlines Follow Suit?

In a move that may set the new standard for domestic airline seating policies, United Airlines announced on Monday a change in policy whereby children younger than 12 will be able to sit next to an adult in their travel group without additional fees, making it “easier than ever” for families to fly together.


The change will apply to all Basic Economy tickets. Introduced simultaneously, said the airline, is a “dynamic seat map feature” technology which will find adjacent seats at time of booking and offer free upgrades to other available adjacent seats if needed.


United also disclosed that, should adjacent seats not be available, customers will be entitled to switch to another flight to the same destination that has adjacent seats for free, with no charge even if there is a fare difference.


United Airlines planes at San Francisco Airport. (pointswithacrew.com)

United’s Chief Customer Officer, Linda Jojo, issued a statement, reassuring customers that United is “focused on delivering a great experience for our younger passengers and their parents and know it often starts with the right seat”. She added that United is “rolling out more family-friendly features this year”.


The move is thought to be a response to recent criticism of airline customer service, which reached its peak when President Biden’s February State of the Union address expressed disbelief at carriers charging families to sit together, insisting that airlines “can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage”.


Last July, the Transportation Department issued a notice to U.S. airlines encouraging them “to do everything in their power to ensure that children who are age 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge”. The Transportation Department also said that “there continue to be complaints of instances where young children, including a child as young as 11 months, are not seated next to an accompanying adult”. It was shortly after this statement that United revealed that it had committed significant investment in technologies to improve their family flight experience.


United Airlines' old seating plan. (United)

Airlines for America, which represents the largest U.S. carriers, responded to the Transportation Department by insisting that its member airlines “have always worked to accommodate customers who are traveling together, especially those traveling with children, and will continue to do so”.


United announced that the policy change would be applied wholesale in early March, once seat technology updates had been implemented. The policy change will not apply to United’s Polaris, first class or Economy Plus seats.


Vice President for Public Policy at the National Consumers League, John Breyault, described the move as an “encouraging first step,” but insisted it was “no substitute for consumer regulation that gives families the right to sit together at no additional cost, regardless of which airline they choose.”


Whether other domestic airlines will revise their policies to match United remains to be seen, but seems likely in the face of growing pressure for airlines to do more for customers. American Airlines’ website says that its booking system will search for seats together for families unable to book seats together without paying extra fees. Delta Airlines encourages families to contact the reservations department if adjacent seats do not appear on online booking. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats during booking, but does prioritise family groups between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ boarding groups.


Last week, a group of Democrat senators introduced the Families Fly Together Act, as part of a growing roster of new regulations. The Families Fly Together Act would legally require airlines to seat children below 13 next to an adult in their party for free.


The American Economic Liberties Project, an advocacy pressure group, pointed to President Biden as a likely factor in United’s decision. “Under intense scrutiny, United has now publicly acknowledged that family seating fees are a problem – something many other U.S. carriers deny,” their statement read. “But the devil is in the details, and while United’s voluntary actions may prove helpful, they are not a replacement for government regulation,” continued William McGee, a senior fellow of the Project in aviation and travel.


William McGee, of the American Economic Liberties Project. (American Economic Liberties Project)

United Airlines’ statement also took aim at other airlines’ more labor-intensive methods. Using a “more manual process” such as asking customers to agree to seating switches at check-in “often results in more stress and a longer boarding process for everyone,” United said. Smaller airlines with policies were quick to remind customers that they already have similar policies in place, including Breeze Airways and Frontier.


Gary Leff, a travel expert who runs aviation travel news agency View from the Wing, labelled the move “a customer win, a win against competitors, and a political win all wrapped up into one.”


The U.S. Department of Travel has encouraged any families unhappy with their seating experiences to file a formal complaint about the airline. Whether other airlines will adopt United’s policy – and whether customers and politicians think airline-by-airline approaches offer travelers sufficient protection – remains to be seen.

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