- The DOT unveiled a new dashboard on Monday that tracks which airlines provide family-friendly seating.
- Children under the age of 13 are free to sit next to an accompanying adult on Alaska, American, and Frontier flights.
- It's the agency's latest attempt to publicly shame airlines for their customer service policies.
The US Transportation Department on Monday released its latest tool to fight what it calls "junk fees": a chart that shows which major airlines have committed to "fee-free family seating" and which carriers are still falling short.
The announcement on Monday comes as the department works on regulations to prevent families from being separated on planes. The dashboard rewards airlines with a green check if they guarantee that an adult family member can sit next to their young children if seats are available. The site also includes links to each airline's customer policies.
According to the airline family seating dashboard the department posted Monday, only three carriers had met the criteria to earn a green check mark: American, Frontier and Alaska all guarantee kids 13 or younger will be able to sit next to an adult in their party at no additional cost.
Crucially, airlines have to add the no-fee pledge to their customer service plans so the department can take enforcement action if necessary.
In its news release, the DOT said that a four-month review last year found that no airlines guaranteed parents and kids could sit together at no additional charge, though most said they would try.
"DOT is not satisfied with airline statements that they will 'make efforts' to seat families traveling with children together at no additional cost," the department's website says. "The Department urges all airlines to guarantee family seating."
"If you are dissatisfied with an experience related to family seating, you can file a complaint with the airline or DOT. Your comments or complaint will be reviewed by the Department and the airline," it added.
The department also sends every family seating complaint it receives about an airline to that airline. "The Department urges all airlines to guarantee family seating."
Biden's fight against 'Junk Fees'
It’s the latest salvo in the Biden administration’s efforts to clamp down on what it calls “ junk fees ” and to put pressure on airlines to improve service.
The Monday announcement credits a pressure campaign by the department and the Biden administration to force some airlines to step up. It said the dashboard helps parents "sidestep airlines' confusing claims on family seating."
Last week, President Joe Biden urged airlines to follow American Airlines in adopting the commitment as part of a broad effort to crack down on what the White House calls "junk fees." "No one should have to pay extra to be seated with their kids," Biden said on Twitter.
Biden first urged airlines in his State of the Union last month to take the action, saying, "Baggage fees are bad enough - airlines can't treat your child like a piece of baggage."
Mandatory fees that often hide the full price: Some sellers publish a low price and then add mandatory fees later, at the “back-end” of the buying process or when a consumer tries to terminate the service.
Surprise fees that consumers learn about after purchase: The 'surprise fees' that consumers do not expect – and which may not be mandatory – similarly make it hard to comparison shop and can burden household finances.
Exploitative or predatory fees: Excessive fees that target consumers who have limited alternative options – because they are locked into a product or service, or are otherwise economically vulnerable – can likewise impose a financial burden
Fraudulent fees: Some fees involve outright fraud or misrepresentations on the part of the seller.
"Parents traveling with young kids should be able to sit together without an airline forcing them to pay junk fees," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release.
"We have been pressing airlines to guarantee family seating without tacking on extra charges, and now we're seeing some airlines start to make this common-sense change. All airlines should do this promptly, even as we move forward to develop a rule establishing this as a requirement across the board."
The family seating guarantee is subject to some fine print:
- -If an airline assigns seats, the child and adult need to be on the same reservation.
- -Adjacent seats must be available at booking in the selected class.
- -A smaller airplane must not be swapped in.
- -The adult needs to either choose or skip seats for the whole reservation
- -It must be physically possible based on the seat layout to place young children next to accompanying adults.
For airlines with an open seating policy:
- -A child and adult must be on the same reservation.
- -The adult needs to notify a gate agent that they need adjacent seats before boarding begins.
- -The seat layout must allow for the child or children to sit next to the adult in their party.
Airlines update family seating policy
Airlines for America, which represents large US airlines, says its carriers do not charge for family seating but many do not include commitments in customer service plans. Carriers not honor written commitments can face USDOT enforcement actions.
Several airlines labeled with a red X on the Transportation dashboard reiterated that they do not charge families to sit together.
"We'll reiterate that Delta does not charge family seating fees and regardless of the ticket class purchased, will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met," Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email.
Southwest, which has an open seating policy that allows passengers free seat selection based on their boarding group, said families with kids 6 or younger can board after the first group to help them sit together. Families with older kids can ask a flight attendant to help them find seats together, the airline said in a statement.
United announced last month that a new feature would find available adjacent seats for kids under 12 to sit next to an adult in their party, even providing free upgrades for preferred seats if needed.
Alaska Airlines said it has "always cared for families on our flights and family seating is something we've never charged for." Frontier said in recent months it took steps to "automatically" seat young children with an accompanying adult.
American said its written plan "provides additional clarity." USDOT has begun drafting regulations to end family seating fees but that could take years to finalize. The administration plans to send Congress proposed legislation in the coming weeks to end the fees.
Biden first urged airlines in his State of the Union last month to take the action, saying, "Baggage fees are bad enough - airlines can't treat your child like a piece of baggage." In August, US airlines made "significant changes" to customer service plans with nearly all agreeing to offer passengers meals and overnight stays for delays within their control after USDOT first announced a dashboard comparing customer protections.
The DOT said it is moving forward with a rule to make sure airlines seat kids next to an accompanying adult, but acknowledged that the process "can be lengthy." Biden is also asking lawmakers to "fast track the ban on family seating fees" to ensure compliance more quickly.
Tips for families before and during booking
• To ensure that your family sits together, purchase tickets that allow you to reserve specific seats on your flight or look into airlines that offer fee-free family seating on all fare types.
• If you are traveling with a disabled child who you are assisting during the flight to perform a function that airline personnel are not required to perform, the airline is required to provide you with a seat next to your child in the class of service that you purchased. Airlines may not charge for such adjoining seats.
• All airlines permit a child under the age of two to be held on a person's lap during a flight.
• According to FAA regulations, children under the age of 15 and passengers caring for small children are not permitted to sit in exit row seats.
Book your ticket as early as possible
- If you tried to book your tickets early and there are no seats available together, contact the airline through reservations to see if more seats will become available later.
Book children on the same reservation as adults
- • Airlines generally know that all passengers on the same reservation record belong to the same party. When assigning or reassigning seats, airlines prioritize parents and children traveling on the same reservation.
- If your family was unable to obtain seats together or if you are unsure about the status of your seats, contact the airline directly through reservations.
- Confirm reservations that are not booked with the airline. If you did not book your flight directly with an airline, obtain or confirm your seat assignments as soon as possible before your flight.
- Before leaving for the airport, confirm your reservations and seat assignments.
- Arrive early at the airport on the day of your flight.