DOT pushes airlines to let families sit together without extra fees

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Delta, Southwest have differing policies for seating.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is pushing airlines to allow parents to sit with young children on flights without having to pay extra fees, and says some carriers have committed to do that.

Allowing families to sit together without paying extra fees has been a focus of the Biden Administration for months. President Joe Biden included it in his State of the Union address last month as part of a condemnation of “junk fees” he said his administration is trying to stop.

“I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it,” Biden said. He pledged to “prohibit airlines from charging up to $50 roundtrip for families just to sit together.”

But not all airlines have signed on, and the DOT this week published on its website a “Family Seating Dashboard” to show that.

The chart on the DOT website shows that American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines guarantee adjacent seats for children 13 or under and an accompanying adult at no additional cost for all fare types, subject to limited conditions.

Other carriers, including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines, have red Xs showing they have not made that same commitment.

“Parents traveling with young kids should be able to sit together without an airline forcing them to pay junk fees,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a written statement. “All airlines should do this promptly, even as we move forward to develop a rule establishing this as a requirement across the board.”

At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta is the largest airline, followed by Southwest.

Delta fare classes

A key reason Delta hasn’t made the fee-free family seating guarantee is that its “basic economy” fares do not come with advance seat assignments. And if a flight is nearly full when booking in the Main Cabin without many seats next to each other, it may cost extra for “preferred seats” in the exit row, bulkhead or front.

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Delta said customers can contact its customer service agents to address their concerns, adding that “regardless of the ticket class purchased, will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met.”

“At Delta, seating families together is a top priority,” according to Delta spokeswoman Catherine Morrow, which uses technology and trains employees to prioritize seating families together.

Southwest open seating

Dallas-based Southwest does not make such a guarantee because it does not have assigned seating.

“Customers are welcome to choose — for free — any open seat once onboard the aircraft,” according to Southwest spokeswoman Laura Swift.

Southwest noted it never charges a fee for seat assignments, and through its open seating policy allows family boarding between the A and B boarding groups — roughly one-third through the boarding process. Those with children 6 or younger can board during family boarding and choose seats.

During a test of alternate boarding procedures at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in recent months, Southwest allowed families to board earlier — before the A group and general boarding, but after pre-boarding.

The Southwest tests on several gates at the Atlanta airport — which included more dynamic digital signs for boarding, high-tempo music in the jetbridge and a self-service kiosk in the gate area — was part of an ongoing effort by the airline to reduce how long it takes to get an aircraft ready for takeoff.

“This effort is not an indication of a forthcoming policy change; we simply work to trial various concepts to ensure our operation is performing at optimal levels,” according to Swift.

The DOT said it is starting on a rulemaking process to ensure adults can sit next to their young children, but that process can take years. The Biden Administration also plans to send proposed legislation on the matter to Congress.


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