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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DOT calls out airlines that don’t guarantee free family seating

Transportation officials are also working on a rule to ensure a child and parent won’t be separated

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
4 min

The Transportation Department on Monday released its latest tool to fight what it calls “junk fees”: a chart that shows which major airlines have committed to “fee-free family seating” and which are still falling short.

According to the airline family seating dashboard the department posted Monday, only three carriers had met the criteria to earn a green check mark: American, Frontier and Alaska all guarantee kids 13 or younger will be able to sit next to an adult in their party at no additional cost.

Crucially, airlines have to add the no-fee pledge to their customer service plans so the department can take enforcement action if necessary.

In its news release, the DOT said that a four-month review last year found that no airlines guaranteed parents and kids could sit together at no additional charge, though most said they would try.

“DOT is not satisfied with airline statements that they will ‘make efforts’ to seat families traveling with children together at no additional cost,” the department’s website says. “The Department urges all airlines to guarantee family seating.”

The Monday announcement credits a pressure campaign by the department and the Biden administration to force some airlines to step up. It said the dashboard helps parents “sidestep airlines’ confusing claims on family seating.”

American updated its customer service policy last week, and Alaska said it had clarified its policy with a Friday announcement spelling out its guarantee for free family seating.

President Biden said in a Twitter post Friday that “no one should have to pay extra to be seated with their kids. Time for more airlines to follow suit.”

“Parents traveling with young kids should be able to sit together without an airline forcing them to pay junk fees,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release. “We have been pressing airlines to guarantee family seating without tacking on extra charges, and now we’re seeing some airlines start to make this common-sense change. All airlines should do this promptly, even as we move forward to develop a rule establishing this as a requirement across the board.”

What do airlines owe for canceled flights? A new dashboard tells you.

The family seating guarantee is subject to some fine print:

  • If an airline assigns seats, the child and adult need to be on the same reservation.
  • Adjacent seats must be available at booking in the selected class.
  • A smaller airplane must not be swapped in.
  • The adult needs to either choose or skip seats for the whole reservation
  • It must be physically possible based on the seat layout to place young children next to accompanying adults.

For airlines with an open seating policy:

  • A child and adult must be on the same reservation.
  • The adult needs to notify a gate agent that they need adjacent seats before boarding begins.
  • The seat layout must allow for the child or children to sit next to the adult in their party.

Several airlines labeled with a red X on the Transportation dashboard reiterated that they do not charge families to sit together.

“We’ll reiterate that Delta does not charge family seating fees and 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,” Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email.

Southwest, which has an open seating policy that allows passengers free seat selection based on their boarding group, said families with kids 6 or younger can board after the first group to help them sit together. Families with older kids can ask a flight attendant to help them find seats together, the airline said in a statement.

United announced last month that a new feature would find available adjacent seats for kids under 12 to sit next to an adult in their party, even providing free upgrades for preferred seats if needed.

The DOT said it is moving forward with a rule to make sure airlines seat kids next to an accompanying adult, but acknowledged that the process “can be lengthy.” Biden is also asking lawmakers to “fast track the ban on family seating fees” to ensure compliance more quickly.