Congress to airlines: Keep families together

A bill passed by Congress includes a provision aimed at making it easier for parents and children to get seats next to each other on airline flights, a stressful issue for families in some situations.

The legislation, part of the extension of Federal Aviation Administration authority passed by the House and Senate last week, doesn’t actually impose any seating rules or requirements.

Instead, it directs the U.S. Transportation Secretary to look at establishing a policy directing airlines to allow children age 13 or under to sit next to an accompanying family member who is older.

There are some caveats: It would not apply when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to a seat with extra legroom or in first class, for instance.

Delta Air Lines, Atlanta’s biggest carrier, said it is “committed to continue assisting customers … and we look forward to working with the DOT to implement provisions of the bill once the legislation is signed into law.”

Delta’s basic economy seats cost less than coach seats but do not allow advance seat assignments. The airline acknowledges that families who want advance seat assignments should not book basic economy seats, and warns customers before booking that seat assignments are only available after check-in.

Southwest Airlines, the second largest carrier in Atlanta, does not offer seat assignments at all. Instead it boards customers in groups. Families with children can board after the first boarding group, before the majority of seats are taken.

In an apparent nod to Southwest’s boarding process, the legislation specifies that federal policy should not impose “a significant change in the overall seating or boarding policy ” of an airline with an open seating policy that “generally allows family seating.”

Southwest calls its boarding process “very family friendly.”

“Under the legislation, the U.S. DOT would first study the issue and then, if it determines that new regulations are required, begin a rulemaking to enable (not require) young families to be seated together,” according to Southwest. “If we get to that point, we would evaluate our procedures based on any new legislation.”

The inclusion of the language in the FAA reauthorization bill comes after U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., introduced similar legislation last year called the Families Flying Together Act of 2015.

“Traveling with young children can already be very stressful for parents and when you can’t sit together on a flight, it only makes this process more difficult,” Davis said in a written statement. “All we’re asking is for airlines to do a better job of accommodating parents ahead of time so we can make flying a better experience for families and other passengers on board.”