Good News: new law will require airlines to seat families together

Picture courtesy of Air New Zealand via TravelPulse.
Picture courtesy of Air New Zealand via TravelPulse.

By Eileen Ogintz

Over the past several years I have been contacted by more and more readers with complaints about the poor practices of seating of families on airlines. With most flights at 100 percent capacity, the airlines have often randomly assigned seats so that parents were separated from children — sometimes even toddlers — and often rows apart.

Well, there’s good news on the horizon. The new FAA Reauthorization Act has been passed by Congress (that’s something of an accomplishment in itself given now little actually gets done in Congress these days). And included in the law is a bipartisan provision requiring airlines to seat any children aged 13 and younger “adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13,” all “to the maximum extent practicable and at no additional cost.”

“The Families Flying Together Act will put an end to the absurdity of toddlers sitting separate or unattended on an airplane — requiring airlines to plan ahead so that families with young children can fly together,” commented said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) who co-authored the provision with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) . “For several years, we have tried to force the airlines to enact family friendly seating policies, and to not shift the burden onto other passengers to vacate their seats so that children can sit with their parents. Thankfully, the new FAA bill includes this common sense measure allowing families with small children to travel together safely and reliably without disrupting other passengers.”

“Traveling with young children can already be very stressful for parents and when you can’t sit together on a flight, it only makes this process more difficult,” added Davis. “All we’re asking is for airlines to do a better job of accommodating parents ahead of time so we can make flying a better experience for families and other passengers aboard. I think most airlines have the same goal. This provision is important to updating an industry that continues to see growth in family travel.”

Incidentally, the FAA Act will also require airlines and airport to accelerate the security screening process and issue prompt refunds for baggage fees when luggage is lost for more than 12 hours.

All of this good news comes in part from efforts by consumer advocates as well as the new Family Travel Association, of which I am a board member. The FTA also worked hard to keep some anti-family provisions out of the bill, including one attempt to hold travel agents responsible — and subject to potentially huge fines — if families were not seated together. The fact is the airlines control the seating, not the travel agents.

(Click here for a summary of other new and interesting provisions included in the FAA extension or read this helpful Washington Post article about it. The full legislative text is found here.)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Actually, the law initially requires DOT to “review and, if appropriate, establish a policy directing scheduled passenger air carriers to establish policies that enable a child, who is age 13 or under to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13, to the maximum extent practicable
    and at no additional cost, except when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch for which additional payment is normally required.”
    So, it’s a review of policies and then, IF APPROPRIATE, it’s the establishment of policy, which is not the same as a regulation. It’s not a “free seats together” regulation as many are assuming. If an airline charges passengers to obtain pre-assigned seats, the airline will still be permitted to charge families those fees if travelers wish to have pre-assigned seats. Or if a window or aisle seat has an added fee, the traveler will still be required to pay that fee, even if there’s a family member under the age of 13 who is traveling with that person.

  2. I had such a horrific American Airlines (AA) experience this weekend, I had to voice my frustrations. AA tried to separate me from my toddler on a flight and their poorly trained staff’s callous and unprofessional response convinced me that they are not a family friendly airline.

    My flight this weekend from LGA to MCO was the second time and airline separated my family on a domestic flight, sitting my toddler son by himself. The first time, Delta fixed the issue once we brought it to their attention.

    This time, my son and I were traveling together on a 6am flight. When we bought the ticket, months ago, we requested seats together, and put that my son was three years old. My son’s boarding pass said he was a child. Still I was seated across the aisle from him when I went to check in! While this concerned me at first, I just kept thinking that once told, someone from AA would rectify this situation. Sadly, this was not the case.

    I asked AA staff at the airport three times to help: first when I was checking my bags, a second time at the gate, and a third time on board the plane. The first person told me to ask someone at the gate, and the gate AA staff responded by telling me I had to ask other travelers to switch seats once I boarded. Simply put, they passed the buck, as if this was not their responsibility.

    I tried to stay calm because my son was fast asleep and I was by myself trying to juggle bags, a stroller, and sleeping toddler all at 6AM in the morning.

    But AA’s refusal to accommodate me left me with the responsibility to beg strangers to move their seats. I wanted to scream but kept my cool, because I really had no choice. Still, I was especially shocked that in my process of trying to get someone to switch seats, a flight attendant told me to sit separately from my son because I was disturbing the boarding process.

    Without any help from AA staff, and with only a couple minutes before the doors closed, a couple offered to change seats so my son could sit next to me. This gracious couple helped me after they watched me reluctantly place my sleeping toddler across the aisle from me, as I was ordered to do by AA staff, all the while praying that he didn’t wake up and start crying because he saw only strangers around him.

    I was so shocked that AA staff refused to help that I couldn’t even relax on the flight. Once we got to our hotel and got settled, I called AA to make a complaint and I was told that: 1. it was my fault for booking a flight through a discount website, 2. FAA and DOT regulations allows them to seat us the way they did and 3. The issue is not AA’s fault but the fault of staff at LGA (who btw happen to work for AA). Which makes no sense.

    The whole thing seems like a massive safety issue, and to me defies logic. And I wondered how many families went through this so I posted on my Mom’s group website and found out that dozens of families have had this happen and worse while flying on AA.

    AA’s response to me when I sent an email through their email address was that I was given “adjacent aisle seating” was sufficient and appropriate. This makes no sense because the seat has to be adjacent to the other seat not the aisle. Is this what the law allow? If so, who is accepting responsibility for the safety and well being of my sleeping toddler who is sitting out of my reach? Is the passenger actually sitting next to my toddler responsible for babysitting him during the flight, because aisles create a barrier to parents accessing children during take off and landing! Aisles are also a barrier to parents accessing children during flight when they are doing beverage service. So who is getting my child set up for food and beverages? Who is comforting him when his ears are popping during take off and landing? Who is checking on him to make sure he doesn’t relieve himself on your seats? Who is monitoring him in case he gets motion sickness? Who is making sure other passengers aren’t molesting him? I can’t imagine that the law considers seats separated by an aisle adjacent when aisles are barriers to parents caring for and protecting their children and ensuring the safety of children during flight.

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