Should Families Be Seated Together on Planes for Free? The DOT Is Investigating

A previous Department of Transportation report said no, but that could change

Silhouette of joyful young Asian father carrying cute little daughter looking at airplane through window at the airport while waiting for departure
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Once upon a time, booking a flight was a simple process. You purchased a ticket and were assigned a seat. Now, passengers are nickel-and-dimed for everything beyond the seat itself—including seat assignments. Though some budget travelers might be willing to let the airline pick their seats to keep their travel costs low, that's not necessarily the case for families since parents and children could be split up and seated in different rows. That's why consumer advocate groups have been pushing for change, and it looks like someone is finally listening.

According to a statement provided to Travel Weekly, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is re-evaluating its prior stance that airlines do not need to seat families with children 13 and under together for free. The original conclusion was reached two years ago under a directive from Congress to investigate the matter—the DOT said that few airline complaints had anything to do with family seating. But unless families are willing to pay for specific seat assignments (which could cost anywhere from $4 to $23 per seat per flight on average, according to NerdWallet), they run the risk of separation, which, understandably, is a less-than-ideal scenario.

Currently, most major carriers offer complimentary seat assignments with tickets purchased in the main cabin. Still, passengers traveling on basic economy tickets will be assigned seating by the airline during the check-in process. On most low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, no passengers can select their seat in advance unless they pay an extra fee for the privilege.

Airlines will, however, do their best to seat families together; gate agents and flight attendants will re-seat families if possible, but sometimes, there's nothing they can do. That's how toddlers might end up seated between two adult strangers, rows away from their parents.

Because airlines make a substantial profit off "add-ons" like seat assignments, it's not likely they'll get rid of the practice altogether. Some airlines, however, have implemented workable solutions. Singapore Airlines automatically allows free seat selection if a booking includes children. Ryanair allows up to four children to be seated with an adult for free, so long as the adult pays for their seat selection—those fees are usually less than $10.

Consumer advocates are hoping American carriers might adopt similar policies. In July, according to Travel Weekly, DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg met with travel advocates to revisit the issue of family seating on aircraft. Though he has not issued firm plans to require airlines to change their policies, Buttigieg indicated his interest in investigating the matter further.