Amid 2023’s busiest travel weekend so far, United Airlines announced it’s making changes to its policies and computer systems to make it easier for families to sit together.
The changes will start rolling out right away for those booking a ticket with a child age 12 or younger, with full implementation expected by early March.
As part of the upgrades, the Chicago-based carrier plans to debut a new seat map function that will search for seats grouped together at the time of booking, thus making it easier for families to get seats together.
If there aren’t standard seats available together, the airline may offer families complimentary upgrades to “preferred” spots—those pricier seats in coach many have to pay extra for.
This goes not just for main cabin tickets, but even for those more restrictive basic economy fares that don’t typically include complimentary seat selection.
Perhaps the most striking part of United’s announcement: If the airline can’t find adjacent seats for a family, passengers can rebook on another flight at no cost—even if the new flight is more expensive.
United attributes these upgrades to technology investments and the company’s goal of creating a more family-friendly flying experience.
But there’s no doubt airlines are facing pressure from the Biden administration on the subject of seat fees. The president even called out airlines for “charging … for families just to sit together” in his State of the Union speech.
In a tweet on the night of the speech, the airline trade group Airlines for America pointed out that carriers don’t charge a family seating fee—but numerous airlines do charge customers for seat selection with certain tickets, particularly when it comes to basic economy.
That can potentially lead to kids getting assigned seats away from their parents, as Consumer Reports and other advocates have documented.
As pressure on airlines to remove that possibility mounts, United’s changes raise the question: What are other carriers doing to make it easier for families to sit together?
In a statement released Tuesday, ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines pointed out its own seat assignment changes made in recent months, which now automatically place children ages 14 and younger next to at least one adult in their party before the check-in window opens.
As USA Today reports, Breeze Airways and Southwest Airlines have likewise highlighted methods they use to make sure kids don’t sit alone—by waiving the fee for seat selection for families and allowing early boarding for families traveling with kids ages 6 and younger, respectively.
As for United’s Big Three rivals?
Delta Air Lines tells Frommer’s it “will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met,” noting the company made technological investments and changes to how it manages seat inventory to allow gate agents more flexibility to make seat changes. You can see more on Delta’s family seating policies here.
American Airlines’ policy, meanwhile, suggests that if you can’t find seats together as you book, you should avoid settling for scattered seats throughout the plane. Instead, just skip seat selection altogether. American says the system will then detect that you’re a family wanting to sit together, and will automatically search for seats together prior to travel day.
“We’ll do our best to keep you together, but if seats are limited, we’ll assign seats so children under 15 are next to at least one adult,” American’s policy states.
If all else fails, the airline says it will rebook families at no cost, or refund those who ultimately don’t fly—and that goes even for basic economy.
So it should be some comfort to know that, by and large, airlines do have contingencies in place that should allow passengers to move seats on or before travel day.
But it’s worth wondering whether systems can’t be simplified further to ensure, at the very least, a little less uncertainty for parents leading up to a flight.
If it’s simply a matter of a technology update, perhaps we'll see more changes from airlines in the coming months.