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Airlines, just let families with children sit together for free already!

Aug. 25, 2022
10 min read
mother and daughter at the airport
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As a kid-free frequent flyer who’s often traveling for work these days, I’ll admit that I’m not always thrilled when a family with a brood of boisterous young children boards a flight I’m on. This is especially true in business or first class.

However, flying families are a fact of life. The vast majority of kids taking to the skies are, of course, well-behaved little angels, and their parents are just trying to get from point A to point B without bothering anyone.

I became much more tolerant of toddlers on trips after traveling with my own young nephews and niece a few times. When a kid decides they want to throw a tantrum in the middle of the aisle…there’s not really much you can do about it but try to mitigate the collateral annoyance.

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These days, I simply smile at passing tykes as they board, put on my headphones and settle in for a podcast.

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I was doing precisely that the other day when I noticed a mother with three young daughters in tow walking down the aisle, looking at their boarding passes in anxious consternation. She pointed the two eldest, who looked to be about 11 and eight years old, to one row of seats where they took the window and center places together.

Then the mother directed her youngest, who looked to be about five or six, to the middle seat in one row and said that she would be in the middle seat one row back. As you might imagine, the little girl looked like she was doing her best, though not quite succeeding, at holding back tears.

The prospect of sitting between two strangers on an airplane when she was barely old enough for kindergarten must have been pretty scary.

Luckily, the woman sitting in the aisle seat next to the child offered to take the parent’s middle seat in the next row so that mother and daughter could sit together. It was a simple but beautiful moment of humanity in a setting where air rage and aloofness seem to be more the norms.

Should families have to pay more to sit together?

(Photo by Maskot/Getty Images)

As I pondered the circumstances, I’ll admit that my first impulse was to think, “Well, they probably could have purchased seats together or planned a little better.” After all, the web is littered with articles about how to get your family seats together by “outsmarting” airlines.

The strategies include everything from booking the whole party on the same reservation to appealing to gate agents’ sympathies. Often the conclusion is just the same, though: Pay more if you need to guarantee seats together.

(As a side note, it’s possible that this family had misconnected from another flight and were simply given the last available free seats on the plane, so perhaps seating assignments were mostly out of the control of both the airline and the travelers.)

The more I thought about this family’s situation, the more I gravitated toward the conclusion that airlines should just let families with young children select seats together for free. Not only would that be the decent thing to do…but it might even be economically sound.

The Biden Administration’s Department of Transportation recently issued a notice urging airlines to do this, but it's a long way from becoming policy or law of any sort.

What airlines currently do for families

Some airlines do theoretically attempt to seat parents and children together.

“If you don’t choose seats in Main Cabin or Basic Economy, we’ll assign seats a few days after you buy your tickets so children under 15 are next to at least one adult they’re traveling with,” reads American Airlines' policy for families with children two years or older.

As in the case on my American Airlines flight, though, that clearly didn’t happen.

If the mother I saw wanted to be seated with her children, she likely would have needed to purchase seat assignments for $17-$21 per person, each way on our Los Angeles to Dallas leg. That would have added about $168 to the cost of a round-trip journey, assuming no free middle seats were open. That’s not even considering if they had to connect to another flight and pay yet another round of fees.

(Photo courtesy of American Airlines)

Delta Air Lines' family seating policy is even vaguer: “Delta strives to seat family members together upon request. If you are unable to obtain seat assignments together for your family using delta.com or the Fly Delta mobile app, please contact Reservations to review available seating options.”

Just hope that there are some available or you might end up paying $39.99 per person, each way, like on this Los Angeles to Seattle example. That is the price to select open Main Cabin Preferred seats, which are simply your regular economy window and aisle places, so you have a shot at getting a middle seat where one of your party can sit for free.

(Screenshot from delta.com)

To be fair, Delta does use a dynamic seat-blocking algorithm to set aside certain seat blocs for flyers traveling in family groups. However, in a season of sold-out flights, chances are these blocs are released earlier than usual and that family travelers booking at the last minute will be out of luck.

For its part, United Airlines claims that it “strives to seat children under age 15 with an accompanying adult family member,” though that’s far from a guarantee.

The airline goes on to offer general advice: “To have the best likelihood of children being seated with an accompanying adult, we recommend booking early and selecting seat assignments when you book….There may be additional charges for seat assignments depending on which fare you select….If it’s important for your family to sit together, you may want to consider purchasing advance seat assignments if available, or selecting a different fare option.”

The airline does say it will try to find adjoining seats for family members on the same reservation; however, it warns that your group may be split and that “seat selections are not guaranteed and may be changed.”

On a recent flight similar to my own, from Los Angeles to Houston, there were very few empty seats where an assignment would be free. Instead, passengers who wanted to ensure they were sitting together would have had to shell out $18-$28 per person, per direction. For a family of four, that could add up to an additional $224 round trip.

(Screenshot from united.com)

Open up seats for families with young children

Instead of saying they’ll try to do their best, and then gouging anxious parents with extra fees to sit near their little ones, airlines should just automatically open up their seat maps for parents with children 15 years or younger.

I’m not suggesting they let families secure premium economy options, like United’s Economy Plus or American’s Main Cabin Extra, for free.

However, if there are open seats in coach that will enable parents to select places together, they should be able to do so for free. It could be as simple as making sure that when the airline’s reservation system registers a child under the age of 15 on a booking, the seat selection for that ticket could be complimentary. After all, the airline will verify each passenger’s details when booking and at the airport anyway.

Otherwise, airlines are essentially charging a child tax and squeezing desperate parents for every extra penny just so they don’t put their kids in stranger danger.

Why would airlines give up such a potentially lucrative revenue stream? Goodwill would be part of it, but good business might just be another.

Seating families together would be good for business

(Photo by Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)

How many families would be more likely to book an airline with an open seating policy for kids just to avoid the last-minute scramble and upsell for that last open aisle seat?

Is Southwest any less profitable because of its open seating policy? It allows families traveling with children ages 6 or younger to board between its A and B groups, ensuring there are enough open seats for parents to place their kids next to them.

I should think that parents with young kids would gravitate toward the hassle-free options whenever possible, and might even pay slightly more to avoid any airport issues or awkward situations. If airlines were to enable this option through their own booking systems, it might even encourage more flyers to book direct rather than through third-party online travel agencies.

What’s more, seating children next to strangers is a potential safety risk.

I’m not suggesting our planes are full of criminals just waiting to prey on kids, but even one instance where a child is traumatized or abused would be bad enough. That's something airlines should avoid at any cost.

Elite flyers won’t mind

As a flyer with elite status with several airline programs, I’d likely be one of the passengers most affected by seating policy changes.

Right now, thanks to my status, I can have my pick of pretty much any open economy seat on a few different airlines when I book. If those airlines were to open up the seat map more to families for free, chances are I’d have fewer seats to choose from. I’m okay with that, though.

I’d probably still be able to find a window or aisle seat most of the time. Plus, this wouldn’t necessarily impact those extra legroom rows that airlines open up for most elites to pick from.

If not, the worst that would happen is I’d get stuck in a middle seat. Chances are, I would sit in a middle seat anyway if a parent asked me to switch seats so they could sit with their child, and this is something I would have happily offered if it would have helped in this situation.

While airlines do try to seat parents and children together on flights — and I believe their customer service, check-in and gate agents genuinely try their best to make it happen — there are simply too many variables to account for and too many families getting split up.

Remember, this is coming from a mostly solo, non-family traveler with the least to gain from such a policy change. Also, I would be one of the folks whose own seating options would be more limited if airlines took this common-sense step. Still, I’d be totally OK with it, and I believe most other flyers would as well.

Bottom line

As flights have gotten fuller, without much relief coming in the near term, airlines need to reconsider their family seating policies. They should give parents and children every opportunity to sit together without charging them a premium to do so.

Taking such a stance might even encourage some families to be loyal to one or two specific airlines, generating even more business and revenue. Perhaps it could even result in some families earning elite status and gaining the ability to select their seats for free that way — which is already playing into airlines’ existing loyalty offerings and benefits.

Either way, splitting parents and young kids can’t be good long-term business, and it certainly isn’t customer-friendly.

Feature photo by Granger Wootz/Getty Images.

Featured image by Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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