Biden administration calls on airlines to seat families together for free
The Biden administration has a message for airlines: seat families together for free on flights.
The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday sent a notice to airlines urging them to adopt policies that minimize the chances that families get separated on planes. Starting in November, DOT will monitor airline seating policies and might respond with new regulations.
While DOT acknowledges that it receives relatively small numbers of consumer complaints about airline seating, it felt it should act because "even one complaint is significant for the impacted travelers," the notice to airlines said.
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A 2016 law — the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act — gives DOT the power to regulate family seating, "if appropriate." While DOT deemed that regulation unnecessary at the time, it appears that the department is open to giving that another look.
The notice makes multiple suggestions for airlines to better accommodate families: allow free seat reservations at booking for families with children 13 and under, allow families to board early if the airline uses an open seating policy or block seats for use by families.
Airlines have increasingly profited off of seat selection fees in recent years. Even the three U.S. network carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — all charge extra for "preferred" seating that offers no additional legroom or benefits, just a seat that is closer to the front of the plane or a non-middle seat.
Southwest Airlines — the only major U.S. airline to use an open seating policy — allows families with children six and under to board after the first — or "A" — boarding group boards, significantly younger than the age 13 cut-off that the DOT seeks.
Other airlines, such as Breeze Airways, have specific family seating policies. Breeze's policy allows for free seat selection for children between 2 and 12 and two adults.
Related: Don’t leave it to chance: How to make sure your family sits together on a plane
The law prevents DOT from forcing airlines to upgrade families to extra-legroom seats or to a higher class of service in order to seat them together.
Also on Friday, the DOT released its first-ever bill of rights for passengers with disabilities. The document is a summation of federal regulations that protect disabled passengers or those who need assistance, including the right to assistance at airports and on flights. The document starts off with a basic, fundamental right: the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
“Today’s announcements are the latest steps toward ensuring an air travel system that works for everyone,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “Whether you’re a parent expecting to sit together with your young children on a flight, a traveler with a disability navigating air travel, or a consumer traveling by air for the first time in a while, you deserve safe, accessible, affordable, and reliable airline service.”