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Is the U.S. Government’s New Dashboard on Airline Family Seating Actually Useful? | Frommer's Photobac / Shutterstock

Is the U.S. Government’s New Dashboard on Airline Family Seating Actually Useful?

The U.S. Department of Transportation has rolled out an update to its airline customer service dashboard, adding a new section focused on which airlines do and don’t guarantee the right of families to sit together without paying extra fees. 

It’s the latest chapter in a mounting pressure campaign by the Biden administration over what it deems “junk fees” and restrictive policies by airlines (and other companies), despite the largest airline trade group maintaining carriers do not charge family seating fees and make every effort to accommodate passengers traveling together, particularly those with children.

The Transportation Department’s family seating chart is actually an addition to a web page started late last summer in the name of airline transparency and passenger rights. The dashboard’s first section debuted in September and, quite conveniently, laid out airline reimbursement and refund guarantees for things like extra hotel nights, taxi fares, and food incurred in the event of cancellations or delays that are the carrier’s fault (in other words, not weather-related).

Taken at face value, the dashboard’s new family seating section would seem to be similarly helpful: It specifically evaluates airlines on whether they guarantee adjacent seats for children ages 13 or younger and an accompanying adult for free. Each carrier that does make that guarantee is given a green checkmark; the others get a red X. 

A closer look at the page, though, suggests that as you make booking decisions you’ll need to do some extra research beyond the chart, which can't in its current form supply a nuanced picture of what's available for family seating on airlines. 

Notably admonished with a red X on the dashboard: Southwest Airlines, known for its boarding policy allowing passengers to choose where they sit on the plane (though choices are far more plentiful for passengers who earn or pay for early boarding and/or check-in).

The airline allows families with young children (age 6 and younger) to board early to help ensure that parents and kids can sit together, but that policy wasn't enough to meet the government's family seating standard.  

Also earning a red X is United Airlines, which made headlines last month by announcing new seat selection processes purportedly aimed at simplifying family seat selection.

All told, the Transportation Department only gives 3 out of 10 U.S. airlines green checks for making what the government deems a suitable family seating promise. The chosen three are Alaska, Frontier, and American, which updated its policies last week to “guarantee” family seating just as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned of the impending dashboard.

So what does this mean if you’re looking to travel with your family from, say, Atlanta or Detroit, where Delta and Southwest have hubs, and often the most availability at the cheapest prices? What about San Francisco, where United is dominant? Or say you’re taking a family trip to Orlando, where Spirit, Southwest, and JetBlue each has a major presence?

Before concluding that the red X given to each of those carriers for family seating is truly a red flag, you'll want to look closely at the airline's policies. 

United, for instance, claims its improved technology searches for adjacent seats for families with children (though only age 12 and younger, not 13). That goes even for those with basic economy tickets that typically exclude complimentary seat selection. The airline will also allow those it can’t accommodate to switch to a new flight for free.

And last month Delta told Frommer’s it “will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met,” urging those having trouble finding suitable seats to contact the carrier’s reservations department. 

To be clear, just about every traveler who flies with children would love to see the airlines go farther toward simplifying and removing fees surrounding seat selection—at the very least, when it comes to flying with children.

If this dashboard serves as a means to pressure airlines to that end, perhaps the Biden administration will see the new feature as having accomplished its goal.

But for those booking a trip, weighing airline, itinerary, and price, the site’s grading curve is likely too simplistic to serve as a primary decision-making tool.