On Friday 8 July, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on airlines to seat families with young children together free of charge. 

American Airlines planes. Photo by Joshua Hanson
Photo by Joshua Hanson

This came in the form of a notice issued by the USDOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) sent to U.S. airlines requesting that children aged 13 and under should be seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge. In aims to deter the separation of families on planes, an ongoing issue, the notice simply urges airlines to adopt facilitating policies to minimise it. 

In 2016, a law known as the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act specifically enabled the DOT to monitor family seating on airlines when appropriate. However, initially the DOT did not regard the law to be of necessary use. This has all changed recently as it appears that the department is having a change of heart on the issue. 

Notice to airlines

The notice has made several suggestions to airlines to provide better services for families. These include allowing free seat reservations at booking for families with children aged 13 and under as well as allowing families to be the first to board if the airline has an open seating policy or block seats for use by families. On Friday Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stated:  

“Today’s announcements are the latest steps toward ensuring an air travel system that works for everyone.” 

There have been recurrent complaints of instances where young children, including a child of only 11 months, are not seated next to an accompanying adult. Consumer complaints have skyrocketed to 300% above pre-pandemic levels. Although there have been minimal complaints concerning family seating specifically as opposed to issues like refunds due to rampant flight cancellations, the department still deemed it crucial to act, stated in the notice to airlines they said:

“Even one complaint is significant for the impacted travellers.”

The DOT is eager to respond to this problem in order to put a halt to the past few years that airlines have been able to seamlessly profit from seat selection fees. The three main U.S. network carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) all have seat selection fees, which merely grants a seat closer to the front or a non-middle seat, both options offering no additional legroom. 

Accountability 

To ensure that adequate changes are made the DOT and OACP has committed to holding airlines accountable for not adhering to the new child/parent free seating proposal. It has been decided that in November they will review airline seating policies and consumer complaints filed with the Department and if need be, shall respond with new regulations. Therefore if an airline’s policies are found to not be consistent with these guidances, the Department has announced its willingness to potentially act consistent with its authorities. 

The DOT has shown its interest and determination to improve services for consumers after a large amount of complaints. It is now time to see whether US airlines respond to these proposals sufficiently by November. 

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