American Airlines is the latest major U.S. carrier to introduce a family seating policy that allows families to sit together without paying extra, even when booking the cheapest basic economy fares.
For years, American has automatically placed children under 15 with at least one adult on the same reservation soon after booking at no additional cost, including in basic economy. On Tuesday, the airline updated its customer service plan to guarantee families can sit together for free.
American's customer service plan now says it guarantees children 14 and under will be seated with at least one accompanying adult so long as the family is booked on the same reservation and there are adjacent seats available in the same fare class the tickets were originally booked in. If these conditions aren't met, American will still try to seat children with a member of their traveling party, but makes no guarantees.
On most airlines including American, basic economy fares don't come with free seat assignments. Parents are faced with the choice of either paying an extra fee to select a seat or upgrading to a main cabin fare with free seat selection – or else risk being separated from their children for an hours-long flight.
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American Airlines' recent action caught the attention of the Biden Administration as it gears up to crack down on airlines that charge more for families to sit together and other so-called “junk fees.” President Joe Biden singled out these additional costs in his State of the Union address last month, touting his administration's proposal that would “prohibit airlines from charging up to $50 roundtrip for families just to sit together” as part of a broader crackdown on resort fees, Ticketmaster, and other fees he deemed unfair.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called out American for being “the first U.S. airline to commit to putting this guarantee in its customer service plan.” He said the Department of Transporation will roll out a family seating dashboard next week that will show which airlines guarantee families can sit together for free – and which charge seat costs.
Next week, @USDOT will publish a family seating dashboard to show which airlines guarantee families can sit together for free. I appreciate American Airlines becoming the first U.S. airline to commit to putting this guarantee in its customer service plan. https://t.co/5bOaZPhsKa
— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) February 28, 2023
Federal law has required airlines to seat children under 12 next to a family member at no extra cost since 2016. But enforcing that requirement has been a challenge. Airlines and lobbying groups have pushed back against Biden's recent calls for change, insisting they don't charge a “family seating fee.” But, by charging up to $20 or more for seat assignments on basic economy fares or $60-plus to avoid those fares, major U.S. airlines are forcing parents to pay more.
An American spokesperson confirmed the airline's family seating policy is not explicitly new, but including it in the customer service plan lays it out more clearly for travelers and makes it enforceable by the DOT. It likely won't be long before other airlines fall in line as well.
United made headlines last month when it announced it will ensure children under 12 can sit next to an accompanying adult. The Chicago-based airline took it one step further by unveiling a new seat map feature on its booking page that automatically finds adjacent seats for families booking together. And, if all standard economy seats are occupied, United will even open up “Preferred seats” toward the front of the plane to avoid separating families.
Unlike United, American's process for seating families together is not customer-facing. According to the spokesperson, after a family purchases their tickets, American's system automatically begins searching for adjacent seats on the flight. If it cannot seat children under 15 with at least one adult on the reservation, American will rebook the entire traveling party on the next available flight with adjacent seats.
During the booking process, families should see prompts that say if they cannot find seats together – or are booking basic economy – they should skip selecting seats altogether and American will find the seats for them.
United and American are ahead of their direct competitors on this front, with Delta so far only saying it will “strive” to place children and families together but makes no guarantee. Southwest's first-come, first-served boarding process makes getting separated less of a concern for families but again still offers no guarantee families will be able to find seats together once they get on the plane.
Meanwhile, ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier recently announced at least one parent will automatically be seated with any children under the age of 14 in their traveling party at no additional charge.
American is the latest major U.S. carrier to commit to seating families together on flights for free – and the first to make it a guarantee.
With the Biden Administration putting more pressure on airlines to allow families to sit together without additional fees, it likely won't be long before others follow suit with similar guarantees.