DOT studies pricing models that split up families flying together

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Family on plane
Photo Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Over the past decade, as most U.S. airlines have begun charging extra for choice economy seats, it has become more complicated for those traveling as a party to secure seats together without paying an up-charge.

It was for that reason that in July 2016, Congress instructed the DOT to review and determine if new airline regulations need to be developed to ensure that children are seated with adult family members, free of extra cost, "to the maximum extent practicable."

The measure, which was part of a bill that reauthorized FAA funding, called for the review to be completed -- and for the DOT to have implemented regulations, if needed -- by last July 15. Now, more than seven months after that deadline passed, the DOT says it has completed the review. But to date, the agency hasn't revealed if it will suggest new rules or, for that matter, when it intends to make any such decision.

"The department recognizes the importance that families place on sitting together when flying," a DOT spokesperson wrote in response to a Travel Weekly inquiry. "It has conducted a review of U.S. airlines' policies related to family seating and is considering this information to determine whether there are actions that may be appropriate to enable children and adult family members to obtain seats together on aircraft. Consumers who may have a problem during their trip may file a complaint with the airline or DOT."

The spokesperson declined to provide further information or answer follow-up questions.

The DOT's lack of transparency on the matter stands in contrast to the stance taken earlier this month by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which announced that it will launch a review of the seating policies of U.K.-based airlines.

"We will be looking into how airlines decide where to seat passengers who have booked as part of a group and whether any airlines are proactively splitting up groups of passengers when, in fact, they could be [seated] together," the CAA said in a Feb. 2 press release. "We will not hesitate to take any necessary enforcement action should it be required at the end of the review."

Though the CAA is focused more generally on groups, as opposed to children who are flying as part of a group specifically, a consumer research study the authority conducted early this winter of people who flew with travel companions during 2017 nevertheless yielded illustrative data. On aggregate, 18% of those polled in the study said they had not paid extra to be seated together and were separated from their group.

Chris Lopinto, president of the website and app ExpertFlyer, which helps travelers secure quality seats on flights, said that on U.S. airlines, securing seats together has become significantly more difficult over the past decade as load factors have increased and airlines have commoditized more seats.

U.S. airlines filled 82.5% of their seats in 2017, up from 72.6% in 2002 and 79.5% in 2007, according to Bureau of Transportation data.

Lopinto said that on a typical flight, traditional U.S. carriers still make approximately two-thirds of seats available for free selection. Models differ on ultralow-cost carriers Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier, which charge for all advance seat selections, and on Southwest, which never charges for seats, though it does offer passengers the option of paying extra to be among the first to board.

Still, Lopinto said, even when the carriers make two-thirds of their seats available for free selection, it can be difficult for parties to find seats together, especially when more than two people are flying as a group.

"Their distribution isn't necessarily concentrated into one spot to make it easy," Lopinto said, adding that oftentimes airlines offer center seats at no extra cost, while aisle and window seats in the same row are held for up-charges. 

For their part, airlines say they do what they can to keep children with at least one family member while flying.

"United strives to seat children under age 15 with an accompanying adult family member," United states on its website.

Vaughn Jennings, spokesman for the trade group Airlines for America, said that carriers also empower gate agents to do anything possible to keep groups together.

Still, he and airlines' websites acknowledge that there's no guarantee that groups, including those with children, will sit together if they don't pay extra for seats.

"Every effort is made to make sure families sit together" Jennings wrote in an email. "But many variables contribute to individual cases -- specifically, how far in advance a booking was made and how many seats are needed together."

Lopinto, too, suggested that flyers book early if they want the best chance of securing seats together free of up-charges. For larger parties, the strategy that Lopinto's Seat Alerts app employs is to find rows in which at least two seats can be reserved for free.

"That way you only pay [the upcharge] for one seat," he said.

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