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United Airlines Announces Imminent Changes to Its Family Seating Policy

The change comes days after President Joe Biden called out airlines for charging families to sit together on flights

by Fergus Cole

February 22, 2023

United Airlines economy seating / Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines has announced a new family seating policy that will allow children under 12 to sit next to their parents at no extra cost.

In a statement released earlier this week, the airline announced, “customers traveling with children under 12 will start to see more adjacent seat options immediately,” with the policy going into full effect in early March.

The new system will enable passengers to view a seat map which will automatically find seats adjacent to one another when booking multiple fares on the same flight. The feature will first scan free adjacent seats in Economy class but will also provide the option to upgrade to adjacent Preferred Seats, which are located at the front of the cabin and offer slightly more legroom. Economy Plus, First Class, and United Polaris cabins will not be included in the updated policy.

In the event that adjacent seats are unavailable for any reason, such as full flights or last-minute bookings, customers will be able to switch flights to the same destination at no extra charge.

“In an era where more families are working in a hybrid environment, they’re traveling more often—and they’re flying United,” said Linda Jojo, Chief Customer Officer at United Airlines. “We’re focused on delivering a great experience for our younger passengers and their parents, and know it often starts with the right seat. We look forward to rolling out more family-friendly features this year.”

The announcement comes days after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, in which he called out airlines for charging families to sit together on flights, saying, “they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage.”

Consumer rights groups praised the airline’s latest move, calling it an “encouraging first step.” But they’re also calling on regulators to do more to enforce these policies for all airlines.

“This is no substitute for consumer protection regulation that gives families the right to sit together at no additional cost, regardless of which airline they choose,” said John Breyault, vice president for public policy at the National Consumers League. “Absent regulation, United could decide tomorrow to reverse this policy change.”

Other airlines’ seating policies vary significantly, although some carriers claim they’re making an effort to accommodate more families. American Airlines claims its booking system searches for adjacent seats for families, while Delta Air Lines says if customers cannot find any adjacent seats when booking, then they should contact their reservations department to see what is available. Southwest Airlines, which does not offer the option to select seats, says families with children aged six or younger are given priority boarding.