United’s New Family Seating Policy Helps Customers, Hurts Competitors, And Curries Political Favor

United Airlines airlines has announced a new family seating policy that makes it easier for families to have assigned seats together without extra cost. This puts them out ahead of competitors, on an issue they see becoming mandatory anyway, and wins them political points with the Biden administration for doing so.

United’s seat map tool seeks out available adjacent seats during the booking process. They’ll use this to make more adjacent seats available, even in more costly coach seats, when children under 12 are part of a booking. A full rollout of the capability will happen by next month.

The airline will also allow free flight change without fare difference when adjacent seats aren’t available prior to travel. Their new policy applies even on basic economy fares. However the policy does not apply to economy plus or premium cabin seats.

Regulation May Be Coming

Although just 0.38% of DOT consumer complaints involve family seating issues, part of the focus on the Department of Transportation’s pending regulations on fee disclosure includes family seating fees, and Secretary Buttigieg has been jawboning airlines over charging extra for family’s to be able to ensure that they sit together. Additional rules are expected.

Family Seating Benefits Airlines

Airlines should want families to sit together. It means parents supervising kids, and it keeps other peoples’ kids away from unrelated passengers. It improves the cabin experience, and airlines aren’t going to lose a lot of money doing it. And it reduces complexity at the gate and during boarding, when families try to get the attention of gate agents and flight attendants for help with reseating – contributing to on-time departures.

The biggest impediment has been technology investment, to make assignable seats available when young children are on a reservation with adults or to program automatic seat assignments to populate together in that case.

United Gets Out Ahead Politically, Imposes Future Costs On Competitors

United imposed vaccine mandates on employees before the Biden administration did. They’ve been out ahead on environmental investments (and looking for fuel subsidies) – funding direct carbon capture, electric aircraft, and sustainable fuels. Now they’re giving the Biden administration, and Secretary Pete, what they’re looking to impose on other airlines.

  • They see a mandate coming
  • United has actually turned itself around on IT, they were one of the least capable but have made vast improvements to the booking experience and their app experience.
  • They’re able to do this. The policy makes sense, it is helpful to a flight to have pre-teens supervised by their parents.
  • And it makes sense to help impose a cost on competitors. If United can do this, other airlines can too. It undermines objections to a federal mandate.
  • All while currying political favor.

This is a customer win, a win against competitors, and a political win all wrapped up into one. United has been very politically savvy since turning crafting of their narrative over President Obama’s former press secretary.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I agree about it helping everybody and harming competition. Southwest gets outsized attention from our family because my wife has figured out the math that family boarding all-but guarantees no child left behind in the seating process for our family. “Can you GUARANTEE American/Delta/Etc will fix the seating so our kids are with us???” is a phrase heard frequently in our house during trip planning, and of course “no, but it’s happened every single time” falls just short of instilling confidence in a non-Southwest airline.

  2. It really should not be restricted to bookings with 12 year olds and under. It should be applicable to any booking with passengers under the age of 18 years at the time of flight. Furthermore, there should be this same flexibility available for those bookings where there is an adult with medical needs that a companion may need to assist during either an emergency or during a flight.

    Delta (and American Airlines) were already somewhat worse than United Airlines when it came to seating dynamics for families with U12s in the bookings ever since they got rid of free seat assignments for a lot of bookings , but United has also been bad in this regard.

  3. Hopefully they will make it mandatory for all family bookings with children. Too many Kettles who don’t know the first thing about seat assignments, etc and just wait until they get to the airport to sort it out. IF the software requires adjacent seat assignments at time of booking that would be the best policy.

    Also would be good to have mandatory re-seating at gate before boarding. If small children are not adjacent, the system should flag the reservation and the GAs can page the parents to come to the front desk.

    We need to eliminate burdening the FAs as much as possible not to mention all the rest of us who are careful to pick seats and don’t need to be hassled by ignorant parents who don’t plan appropriately.

  4. Maybe my days in Missouri makes me think. . show me. Need to see this actually work first. Knowing UA, it won’t. Good way to piss off your mid-ter loyalist too. I think TWA did it best, loaded First Class then families (because they seated them in the back of the plane, especially on 727 and DC-9/MD-80 which drowned out the crying.

  5. as was discussed on OMAT, United could have complied with what the government wanted w/o degrading the value of its paid coach seats or giving away something to families that are not paying for reserved seats.

    Every airline that assigns seats has had the ability to block seats from advance seat assignments and then assign group or unseated passengers in advance of flight time.

    Multiple people noted on the OMAT thread that Delta implemented a programmatic change that seats families together but still respects their other products including advance seat assignments for customers that buy fares that allow them (not economy basic) as well as paid economy seats (preferred seats further forward).

    Delta didn’t put out anything to brag about its changes and did it before United.

    United is FOLLOWING – in Delta’s wake.

  6. Another example why unfettered deregulation simply doesn’t work for citizens. There’s a 100% certainty that United would have continued taking advantage of the American family if Biden hadn’t taken an issue on this. And Biden took an issue simply because that’s what fed up voters (of all parties) want him to do.

    Politics as the will of the people: that’s democracy!

  7. I want someone to start an airline for adults only. Nobody wants to deal with your annoying kids on an airplane. Not one person.

  8. @Tim Dunn – UA also had some seats blocked in the event pax needed seats together. This is different in that it will assign the seats together, reading off of the birthdays in the PNR so that manual work won’t need to be done. Another reason UA is known for having among the best IT of the major US carriers.

  9. Mark
    Does the same thing just not more than a short time in advance of check in so that it doesn’t diminish the value or opportunity of people using upgraded economy priced seats. Delta also doesn’t give families more than they pay for and the government requires

    You do realize Delta did this months ago and they operate their own reservation system unlike United and nearly all other global airlines and other airlines also use it?

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