In July, the federal Office of Aviation Consumer Protection issued a notice urging U.S. airlines to "do everything in their power" to keep children 13 and younger near their parents when flying — at no added cost.
The office, part of the Department of Transportation, will begin to review all airline policies and consumer complaints in November — four months after the notice was issued (see arkansasonline.com/919fly/).
"This is a big problem because under-13-year-olds are sitting next to strangers," said Kendall Creighton, spokeswoman for FlyersRights, a passenger's rights group. "What happens in case of evacuation, or putting on an oxygen mask? And, it makes for a bad travel experience in general, being split up."
She said airlines should offer families advanced seating and block more seats to assign to families on flights.
A review of the current policies of several big airlines shows that this approach is hardly universal, and some airlines charge higher fares to ensure a child sits next to a parent.
The Fort Worth-based airline will automatically search for seats together the day before departure if a family is traveling with children under 15 and if they do not already have seats assigned, according to the airline's policy. If seats are limited, American will assign children seats next to at least one accompanying adult.
"It's important all children are part of the same reservation as the parent(s) so our system recognizes that they are traveling together," according to airline policy.
American advises people to arrive early and take any required travel documents as they may have to provide proof of age for children under 18.
While at the boarding gate, families with children under 2 years old can ask to board early. Children older than 2 require their own tickets, and children under 5 cannot travel alone. Infants, or children under 2 years old, can travel at no additional cost on the lap of a parent.
Only one diaper bag is allowed per child.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines famously operates on an open seating basis, allowing passengers to pick their seats when boarding the aircraft.
"Open seating provides a great opportunity for families or groups traveling together to sit together on the aircraft," Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said. "Customers traveling on the same reservation receive boarding positions adjacent to one another upon check-in."
The airline's boarding groups, A, B and C, are based on check-in time, loyalty participation in its Rapid Rewards program or through purchase of products such as early bird or upgraded boarding, he said. Check-in begins 24 hours prior to a flight's departure.
Up to two adults traveling with children 6 years old or younger can board during family boarding, between the A and B boarding groups, Perry said.
He also encourages families to speak with a customer service agent at the gate and with flight attendants after boarding for additional accommodations.
United Airlines suggests passengers book and select seat assignments early to have the best chance to have a child under 15 years of age seated with an accompanying adult. Additional charges may apply.
"If it's important for your family to sit together, you may want to consider purchasing advance seat assignments, if available, or selecting a different fare option," according to the website.
If seats are not selected in advance, the airline will try to find adjoining seats for those on the same reservation prior to departure. But the airline warned that families could be split up.
If passengers would like to sit with a child booked on a separate reservation, they can call the United Customer Contact Center at (800) 864-8331.
"While we strive to seat your family together, seat selections are not guaranteed and may be changed, including in the event of an aircraft substitution," according to the website.
DELTA AIR LINES
Delta Air Lines directs people to contact Delta Reservations if traveling with children older than 2 and if families want seats together.
Additionally, in 2019, Delta launched a dynamic seat map, which "helps ensure more families are able to sit together based on data from certain routes and flight schedules."
The airline blocks rows for groups of three or more passengers on a single reservation.
"Delta works closely with our Advisory Board on Disability that provides guidance for ongoing education and investments to ensure an accessible travel experience," a Delta representative said in a statement. "We have also created innovative seat map displays that provide seating choices in all cabins for customers traveling alone, or with others — including children."