friendly skies

United Airlines Launches A Free Family Seating Program That Actually Makes Sense

The new policy will help families sit together during flights, and avoid awkward asks.

Passengers check-in with United Airlines gate attendants at SFO in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday...
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Many traveling families have been there: you get your boarding passes at the airport only to discover that everyone in your party is sitting all over the plane — and that your kids have been separated from their parents. There are only two solutions: letting small kids fly alone a few rows away from you or being at the mercy of other passengers and asking them to swap seats so you can parent.

Until now. United Airlines has announced a new family seating policy that means fewer headaches for parents and other passengers. Under the policy, families with kids under 12 will have a much easier time sitting together, free of charge or hassle. It consists of a new seat map feature, which lets families choose seats together without extra fees — and to take advantage of complimentary upgrades or flight changes if seating options aren’t found.

If there aren’t side-by-side seats on the plane, users can switch their flights to the same destination and in the same cabin at no extra charge.

More: A Woman Wouldn’t Move So A Mom Could Sit Next To Her Teen On A Plane

The policy, which will officially go into effect in March, covers tickets for all seats on the plane, even basic economy, which traditionally come with the bare minimum of perks like seat choice.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the reason for the decision was to ease the frustration of travel for families.

“As a father of seven, I understand this and have sat away from our kids on many flights,” Kirby told CNBC. “So [now] you book your ticket, you know you have a seat, instead of having to wait to get to the airport and cross your fingers and hope that you could get a seat [next to your child].”

Frontier Airlines also announced a new policy that eliminates family seating fees. For their system, they simply automatically assign seats based on family members’ ages before the check-in window opens and ensure that at least one adult is sitting with kids 14 and younger. Wow, that seems pretty easy to do!

These policy changes come after President Joe Biden called out airlines and other big businesses for charging mountains of unnecessary “junk fees” for tickets in his State of the Union Address earlier this month.

“Baggage fees are bad enough – they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage,” Biden said in the speech.

Other organizations say that while Biden’s call-out was helpful and United’s response was positive, it doesn’t trump a government regulation that would fix the problem on all airlines.

“Under intense scrutiny, United has now publicly acknowledged that family seating fees are a problem – something many other U.S. carriers deny. But the devil is in the details, and while United’s voluntary actions may prove helpful, they are not a replacement for government regulation,” William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, said in a statement asking Congress to permanently end family seating fees.

In July, the Department of Transportation released new guidelines about family seating asking that airlines "should do everything that they can to ensure the ability of a young child (age 13 or younger) to be seated next to an accompanying adult (over age 13) family member or other accompanying adult, without charging fees for adjacent seating."

But while it was a step in the right direction, it didn’t require airlines to do anything. And while other airlines have released statements on why their current family seating policies are good enough, it will be interesting to see if others make concrete changes without laws forcing them to do so.