United Airlines is shaking up the airline industry once again. The company announced that it would soon implement a better family seating policy that will allow children under 12-years old to sit next to an adult in their party for free. The change will include customers who buy Basic Economy tickets.
In a statement, United said its “new policy is made possible through a series of investments in a new seat map feature that dynamically finds available adjacent seats at the time of booking. The online seat engine first reviews all available free Economy seats and then opens complimentary upgrades to available Preferred Seats, if needed.
Customers traveling with children under 12 will start to see more adjacent seat options immediately and the complete policy change will go into effect in early March.
In instances when adjacent seats are not available prior to travel – due to things like last minute bookings, full flights or unscheduled aircraft changes – United’s new policy also lets customers switch for free to a flight to the same destination with adjacent seat availability in the same cabin. Customers also won’t be charged if there is a difference in fare price between the original and new flight.
“In an era where more families are working in a hybrid environment, they’re traveling more often – and they’re flying United,” said Linda Jojo, Chief Customer Officer for United. “We’re focused on delivering a great experience for our younger passengers and their parents and know it often starts with the right seat. We look forward to rolling out more family-friendly features this year.”
Many airlines try and use a more manual process to seat families together that can include blocking random seats or asking agents to facilitate seat swaps at the gate. Those circumstances often result in more stress and a longer boarding process for everyone.
The airline’s shift follows on the heels of airlines being called out by lawmakers for making it difficult for families to fly together.
The Wall Street Journalreported, “United formally introduced preferred-seat fees in 2018, with fees as low as $9 one way. But the fees have steadily risen at United and other airlines and can top $100 on last-minute trips on busy routes during peak times. For a flight between Chicago and Orlando, Fla., over Easter break, United last week was selling aisle and window seats in the front and middle of the economy section for $29 each way and middle seats for $17.”
The fees had become a major source of money for airlines, but also served as a major headache for families trying to travel together.
“The U.S. Transportation Department issued a notice to airlines last summer, urging them to make sure that children 13 years old and younger can sit next to an accompanying adult without any extra charge. The White House this month said the Transportation Department would propose rules banning airlines from charging fees for family members to select seats next to children 13 years old or younger and called on Congress to ‘fast-track the ban on family seating fees,’” The Wall Street Journal continued.
During his State of the Union Address, President Biden revealed that he planned to “prohibit airlines from charging $50 round trip for a family just to be able to sit together. Baggage fees are bad enough. Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”
The air travel industry is one filled with copycats. When one major airline does something, the others often work to match the competition. For example, American Airlines and Delta quickly followed United’s lead when it eliminated ticket-change fees in 2020.