Families flying United should have an easier time sitting together under a new policy the airline announced this week.
United said Monday that it will be “easier than ever” for kids under 12 to sit next to an accompanying adult for free under the shift, which goes into effect early next month. When people book tickets for their families, a new feature will find available adjacent seats - first searching free economy seats and then providing free upgrades for preferred seats, if necessary.
That will apply even to passengers traveling under the most restrictive Basic Economy tickets.
“If you’re traveling with your family or in a group and want to sit together, consider buying a seat assignment in advance,” the site says.
If seats together are not available, the airline will let passengers switch to another flight to the same destination that has adjacent seats in the same cabin without paying a fee. They would not have to pay the difference in fare in that case.
United said this week that passengers who travel with kids under 12 will start to see a difference in adjacent seat openings immediately, even though the policy kicks in fully next month.
“We’re focused on delivering a great experience for our younger passengers and their parents and know it often starts with the right seat,” United’s Chief Customer Officer Linda Jojo said in a statement. “We look forward to rolling out more family-friendly features this year.”
The airline’s announcement comes as carriers are under increasing pressure from passenger advocates, lawmakers and the Biden administration to make sure families can sit together on flights.
In July, the Transportation Department’s aviation consumer protection office put out a notice to U.S. airlines urging 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.”
President Biden hammered the issue again during his State of the Union address earlier this month, pledging that the administration would restrict airlines from charging up to $50 round-trip for families to sit together.
“Baggage fees are bad enough - they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage,” he said.
Last week, several Democratic senators introduced legislation to keep airlines from charging families to sit together during a flight.
In its announcement, United said that many airlines try to keep families together by using a “more manual process” such as blocking seats or asking gate agents to arrange seating switches.
“Those circumstances often result in more stress and a longer boarding process for everyone,” United said. The airline said it had been working to better help families sit together since the summer.
Several other airlines were quick to point out their own family-friendly seating policies after United’s announcement. Start-up low-cost airline Breeze Airways said adults who travel with kids up to 12 can choose seats free when they book. Frontier, another budget carrier, said it had taken steps over recent months to make sure at least one parent would automatically be seated with any kids under 14.
Delta said that it does not charge fees for family seating regardless of what fare people book and “will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met.” The airline said it has automated processes to seat groups together and has given customer service and gate agents more flexibility to help families if their seats aren’t together when they arrive at the airport.
When travelers book as a family on American Airlines, the reservation system will automatically look for seats together, spokesman Curtis Blessing said. That applies to kids 14 and under; the system will try to sit at least one child next to each adult if there are multiple kids.
If necessary, as the departure time nears, the airline will open preferred and main cabin extra seats that are usually available for a fee for no additional charge to accommodate families who need to sit together.
Families can also be rebooked on another available flight with adjacent seating at no additional charge or get a refund if that doesn’t work for them.
“American Airlines is proud to offer customer-friendly policies that ensure a positive travel experience for all of our customers, especially families traveling together,” Blessing said in a statement. “Our current policies regarding family seating are designed to allow families to sit together without having to pay extra.”