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United Airlines Makes it Easier For Families to Sit Together… For Free (But is it a Cynical Attempt to Appease Regulators?)

United Airlines Makes it Easier For Families to Sit Together… For Free (But is it a Cynical Attempt to Appease Regulators?)

rows of seats in an airplane

United Airlines is making it easier for families with young children to sit together for free, including customers who have purchased United’s cheapest and most restrictive Basic Economy fares.

The move, which is being made possible by a software update to United’s seat map system, has been hailed as a big win for families who were previously felt like they needed to pay for seat assignments in advance in order to be able to sit together.

a row of seats in an airplane
Photo Credit: United Airlines

Explaining the new policy, United said on Monday that “customers traveling with children under 12 will start to see more adjacent seat options immediately,” although the service won’t be fully available until March.

In cases where there aren’t any adjacent seats available, customers traveling with children will be allowed to swap onto the next available flight for free so that there will always be an available option for families to sit together.

“We’re focused on delivering a great experience for our younger passengers and their parents and know it often starts with the right seat,” commented United’s chief customer officer Linda Jojo.

Unlike some airlines, United is relying on passengers to use its upgraded seat map system to assign seats prior to getting to the gate. Other carriers often block out random seats so that families can be seated together at check-in or even at the gate but Jojo says this just adds stress and “a longer boarding process for everyone.”

Internationally, this isn’t anything new and regulators have already taken action in a number of markets over concerns that airlines were trying to nickel and dime cash-strapped families for the privilege of sitting together.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority says children should always be sat with a parent or guardian, wherever possible. In cases where an adjacent seat simply isn’t available, then children should be separated by no more than one seat row from accompanying adults.

The CAA points out that any greater separation could impede the speed of an emergency evacuation because adults would be trying to reach their children.

The Biden administration has been eyeing family seating policies around the world and the Department of Transportation has indicated that it’s looking to regulate the matter unless airlines take action first.

Earlier this month, President Biden complained that airlines were treating children like luggage during his State of the Union address. “Baggage fees are bad enough,” Biden blasted. “Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”

United is the first carrier to get ahead of the DOT and its rivals by stripping back family seating fees and making it easier for families to sit together before they reach the podium at the gate.

Whether this is enough to prevent further scrutiny from the DOT remains to be seen.

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