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Congress Is Still Trying to Mandate That Families Sit Together on U.S. Flights

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Skift Take

While automatically seating families together onboard U.S. airplanes sounds good in theory, it will be next to impossible to implement because of the nature of how airlines assign seats and charge for preferred access to their best seats based on yield management.

— Andrew Sheivachman

While the latest version of the U.S. Senate’s bill to reauthorize and reform the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is dense with big picture reforms, one small change could affect how U.S. families fly beginning in 2017.

If the current version of the bill passes, airlines will be required to notify families if adjoining seats are available for free when they’re booking. If they aren’t available for free, the airline will have to notify the family about the airline’s policy regarding booking consecutive seats for an additional fee or if seats are assigned at check-in.

The text of the bill reads:

“Not later than 15 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall complete such actions as may be necessary to require each covered air carrier and ticket agent to disclose to a consumer that if a reservation includes a child under the age of 13 traveling with an accompanying passenger who is age 13 or older:

(1) whether adjoining seats are available at no additional cost at the time of purchase; and

(2) if not, what the covered air carrier’s policy is for accommodating adjoining seat requests at the time the consumer checks in for the flight or prior to departure.”

Organizations like the Family Travel Association have pushed legislators to mandate that families be seated together onboard, but efforts to introduce the stipulation in the FAA bill failed to pass as an amendment in the House.

The airline industry doesn’t think the rules for family flyers need to change.

“Customers can see what seats are available today when they book,” Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications for Airlines for America, told Skift. “As with buying tickets for the theater or a sporting event, airline tickets are most plentiful early on, and families are encouraged to book early. We don’t believe additional regulation is needed.”

The greater issue of reforming how seats are made visible to and selected by flyers traveling together has serious ramifications for business travelers, as well.

“Many airlines only show shoppers the seats that they want to offer for free, or for an additional fee, on any given day prior to departure,” said Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell. “Two weeks out from departure, for example, there may be seats available for a family of four to sit close to one another but they are greyed out and cannot be “seen” by the customer. ​However, the airlines does show four seats in proximity to each other for $40 an upgrade. The customer panics a little and pays the extra $160 one way or $320 round-trip. Such displays and practices are misleading and deceptive. This would also be beneficial for business travelers in those cases where small teams visit customers and they would like to sit together without having to shell out extra dollars.”

Politicians also tried to push through the mandate for seating family members together last year through the Families Flying Together Act of 2015, but the bill stalled in the House aviation committee.

“Air travel is complicated and expensive enough for families without adding new stresses,” said House representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, when the bill was introduced.  “Families should not be stuck paying hidden fees, or buying ‘premium’ seats, simply because they wish to be seated together on crowded flights.  It is positively absurd to expect a two or three-year-old to sit unattended, next to strangers, on an airplane.  It is up to air carriers to make their seating policies clear and easily accessible to the public.”

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