Why is it so hard for airlines to seat families together?

Nov 25, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The inability (or unwillingness) of airlines to seat families together has been a hot button topic for many years. The Families Flying Together Act, which requires children 12 and younger to be seated near a parent, was passed in 2016, but the FAA still isn’t enforcing it. We continue to hear crazy stories in the news, like last year, when a 3-year-old was upgraded to first class while her parents were left in coach.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who has followed this issue for years, isn’t backing down. He wants things to change, and is bringing the issue to light once again.

This past weekend, Schumer said in a statement to U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, “With the holiday travel season upon us, I urge you to establish a policy to ensure that children 13 and under will not be seated apart from their parents on commercial aircraft,” according to a press release from his office.

Related: The best airlines for families

He went on to cite a report from nonprofit Consumer Reports that found that between Mar. 2016 and Nov. 2018, 136 complaints were filed against airlines for separating parents from children. While the Department of Transportation hasn’t acted due to the “low number” of complaints, Schumer argues, “even one instance of a young child being separated from their family on a commercial flight is unacceptable and quite frankly, disturbing.”

And travelers can encounter different experiences with different airlines. American Airlines, for example, told TPG it had a process in place to ensure children up to the age of 15 will be seated next to an adult.

“For families traveling with a child under the age of 15 who don’t have a seat assignment, our system will work to seat the child with an adult in the reservation starting 48-hours after the reservation is ticketed,” a spokesperson from American told TPG in an email, who added this also applies to basic economy fares. “This ensures the child will not be assigned a seat alone … Additionally, we block seats on flights for airport control. This enables our airport team members to move people around, as needed, at the gate. This is helpful in case families book at the last minute, [are rebooked] due to irregular operations, etc.”

Southwest does not assign seats, but that actually works to the advantage of some families with young children. Families with children under seven are allowed to board immediately after priority boarding – on Southwest called “A group boarding.” 

Delta and United have even murkier policies. On its website, United says, “[we strive] to seat children under age 15 with an accompanying adult family member,” adding, “To have the best likelihood of children being seated with an accompanying adult, we recommend booking early and selecting seat assignments when you book.” And Delta’s so-called Family Seating Policy says: “Delta strives to seat family members together upon request.”

I, for one, can’t understand why it’s taken airlines so long to work this out. They take every passenger’s birth date at the time of booking, so it should be easy to tell when they’ve seated a 3 year old by themselves, aisles away from their adult companion. An airline employee even went as far as to tell me, recently, that I shouldn’t have booked basic economy tickets because I was traveling with a toddler. Should I be forced to pay $70 more per ticket because I’m traveling with a child, to ensure our seating assignments? That feels a little discriminatory to me.

To be honest, there are times when I’d love to pass my toddler off to an unwitting passenger (I’m kidding, of course). But how is that even fair to the other passengers on board? Wouldn’t you rather be reseated than sit next to my squirmy kid? Sitting families together just makes sense.

If you’re a traveling family, be sure to check out our tips for ensuring your family gets seated together on a flight.

Featured photo by FamVeld/Shutterstock.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 50,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at US restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership.
  • Accelerate your path to Medallion Status, with Status Boost®. Plus, in 2021 you can earn even more bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) to help you reach Medallion Status.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.