The DOT has warned airlines that they should take pains to make sure children can sit on flights next to accompanying adults for no extra charge. Failure to do so, the department said in a newly issued notice, could lead to regulatory action.
"The department expects U.S. airlines providing scheduled passenger service to review their seating policies and practices and revise them as necessary to ensure the ability of a parent or other accompanying adult to sit next to his or her young child," reads the notice, which was put forward by the DOT's Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP).
The notice goes on to say that beginning in four months the OACP will review the practices and policies of airlines. If the review reveals barriers to a child age 13 or under sitting next to an adult traveling companion, the DOT will consider launching a formal rulemaking process that would ban airlines from charging fees for such seating arrangements.
The notice comes 10 months after the DOT told Travel Weekly that it has resumed looking into whether requirements related to ensuring families can sit together on commercial flights are needed. Two years earlier, the Trump administration DOT, responding to a directive from Congress to examine the matter, concluded that U.S. airlines don't need to be governed by such a requirement. A review of complaints the DOT had received between 2016 and 2018 revealed that just one in 200 of them related to family seating, the department explained as it made that decision.
But the Biden administration, which has taken a more friendly posture toward airline industry consumer protection regulations, has faced pressure from consumer advocates to reconsider the issue. Last July a group of leading advocates pressed their case during a meeting with DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg.
In its notice, the OACP acknowledged that the DOT received just 259 complaints related to family seating in 2020 and 2021 combined, which amounted to less than one in 200 of all complaints received during that time.
"However, the department recognizes that even one complaint is significant for the impacted travelers," the notice reads.
Airlines procedures vary
In a statement Friday afternoon, the Airlines for America said that airlines work to accommodate customers traveling together, especially those traveling with children.
"Each carrier sets their own policies that fit individual business models, but all make every effort to ensure families sit together," the trade group said.
Procedures do, in fact, vary among the U.S. carriers. For example, Southwest allows families traveling with a child up to the age of 6 to board together after Group A boarding, which encompasses the first 60 boarding positions.
As a general rule, the challenge for families in obtaining seats together, especially free of charge, is most complicated on basic economy tickets, or with standard seating products on ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs) such as Spirit and Allegiant. ULCCs charge extra for any seat assignment prior to check-in unless the customer has already paid for a more expensive bundled fare product. Either way, that means higher costs for families determined to ensure they will sit together.
Traditional carriers, meanwhile, either don't allow seat assignments prior to check-in for basic economy tickets, or only offer early seat selections with a fee. Families who want assurance of sitting together therefore must either purchase a more expensive economy seat or pay for the seat selection. Increasingly, traditional carriers also require payments for early assignment of aisle and window seats on standard economy fares.
Families who choose not to reserve seat assignments at booking, as well as those unable to find available adjacent seats -- even for a fee -- aren't necessarily out of luck. Airlines encourage families to check in to their flights as soon as they are eligible and to arrive at the airport early.
"If you don't select your seats in advance, we'll do our best to find adjoining seats for your family on the same reservation in the cabin you booked a few days before your flight departs," reads the United website. "However, available seats may be limited at that time and your family or group may be split. While we strive to seat your family together, seat selections are not guaranteed and may be changed, including in the event of an aircraft substitution."
Also on Friday, the DOT published a bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities. The document doesn't include new rules. However, says the DOT, it "provides a convenient, easy-to-use summary of existing law governing the rights of air travelers with disabilities."