The Department of Transportation is introducing an online dashboard that will allow passengers to identify which U.S. airlines will seat children 13 and younger next to an accompanying adult at no extra cost. It is the latest attempt by the Biden administration to pressure airlines to reduce airline fees for everything from seating to reimbursement after flight delays.
The creation of the dashboard is in response to complaints that the D.O.T. has received from travelers who say they have been seated apart from their children, some as young as 11 months.
The new dashboard would help passengers see which airlines actually guarantee family seating while the D.O.T. works on a rule that would ban charging families more to sit together. For airlines to receive a green check on the dashboard, they must guarantee that parents or an accompanying adult can sit next to their children for free if the seats are available.
“Parents traveling with young kids should be able to sit together without an airline forcing them to pay junk fees,” said Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, in a statement, adding that the department had been pressing airlines to make those guarantees. “All airlines should do this promptly, even as we move forward to develop a rule establishing this as a requirement across the board.”
In an announcement on Monday, the D.O.T. added that the new dashboard would allow parents to sidestep “confusing claims” on family seating policies and make it easier for passengers to know which airlines had “stepped up.” Making the guarantee in their customer service plans also means that if airlines failed to uphold the policy, the D.O.T. could step in to enforce it, the department said.
In recent weeks, airlines have said they would change their policies to help accommodate families. United Airlines announced in February that it would allow children under 12 to sit next to accompanying adults at no extra cost, and updated the seat map technology on its online booking system to allow families to more easily find adjacent seats. If no adjacent seats are available, passengers can rebook on a different flight for free.
Frontier Airlines also announced that it had been making efforts to ensure its system would automatically assign at least one parent a seat with their children under 14. And American Airlines said that it had updated its customer service plan in February to guarantee that children under 15 will sit with accompanying adults for free, and offer travelers free rebooking or a refund if the seating wasn’t available.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that it did not charge a fee for seat assignments and offered a service for families to choose their preferred seats during boarding.
The changes come after the Department of Transportation said that in a review begun last year it found that no airline guaranteed seating families together for free, though many airlines said they would make their best efforts. The Biden administration is now planning legislation that would legally enshrine family seating.
In February, a group of Democratic senators introduced the Families Fly Together Act, which would require every airline to seat children 13 and under next to an accompanying adult without a surcharge.
In the meantime, the administration appears to be using dashboards as a way to urge airlines to publicly declare their commitments to their passengers. A similar dashboard, introduced in August, allowed passengers to see which airlines guaranteed services like meals or accommodations when flights were delayed or canceled for reasons under an airline’s control. The department said that the dashboard compelled 10 U.S. airlines to explicitly guarantee meals and rebooking services, and nine to guarantee accommodations. Many airlines, however, said that they already had such policies in place or made small tweaks to existing services to meet the standard for a green check.
The push for air travel reform from the administration follows a spate of public fiascos. In January, a Federal Aviation Administration system outage grounded domestic flights in the country for 90 minutes and caused disruptions throughout the day. And in December, a winter storm left thousands of passengers stranded by bad weather. The situation was compounded for Southwest Airlines passengers after the airline’s inadequate computer systems led to what analysts called the airline’s largest operational meltdown in its five-decade history.