In recent years, airline industry policies regarding seat assignments have become more and more restrictive. To obtain an assigned seat on many flights, you must pay an upgrade fee. That fee often doesn’t even offer extra leg room or other benefits. In this “a la carte” era, families can’t catch a break. Some can’t afford to upgrade seats or don’t know of the current pricing landscape. So, parents can sometimes find themselves not seated next to their very small children. As it turns out, the Department of Transportation would like a word with the airlines. They’re stepping in to require airlines to seat families together on flights.
In the most egregious complaint lodged with the DOT last year, an 11-month old baby was seated far from either parent on one flight. So into this sea of crazy, the DOT has finally put the airlines on notice.
New DOT Guidelines for Airlines and Family Seating
The new guidelines are known as the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act. They give DOT the authority to regulate family seating if necessary. The DOT guidelines offer several suggestions, one of which is allowing families to board early if the airline uses an open seating policy. Of course, most airlines do not presently offer an open seating policy.
Another suggestion made by the DOT was for airlines to use seat-blocking technology on their reservations systems, thereby retaining a certain number of seats available for families on each flight. The details of how this would work were not immediately available.
When do the new policies and potential penalties go into effect?
The DOT will permit airlines a grace period until November of this year, at which time it reserves the right to implement penalties for not seating families together. Currently, only Southwest Airlines offers an open-seating policy that allows families with children 6 and under to take advantage of priority boarding. The new airline, Breeze Airways, allows children between the ages of 2 and 12 to sit between accompanying adults for free.
The primary lobbying entity for U.S. airlines, Airlines for American has pushed back against the DOT announcement, saying the airline industry always tries to accommodate families traveling together, and will continue to do so. However, they go on to assert that “each carrier sets their own policies that fit individual business models.” This seems like the airlines collectively will stop short of committing to the new guidelines.
What penalties will airlines face if they do not seat families together?
Unclear. The DOT has asserted they will formalize the policy changes for airlines by the end of this month, which should mean we’ll see some formal language around the policy changes. What do you think? Should the airlines be required to seat families together on flights free of charge? We’ll keep you posted on any news around this topic.