To Keep Families Flying Together, U.S. Congress Passes New Law

To Keep Families Flying Together, U.S. Congress Passes New Law

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Families flying together: kids on a plane

Picture courtesy of Air New Zealand via TravelPulse.

The hard work has paid off! Within a year, airlines will be required to keep families flying together.

Since 2015, Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), both members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have been championing a legal provision requiring airlines to seat any children aged 13 and younger “adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13,” all “to the maximum extent practicable and at no additional cost.”

And now the latest version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization legislation includes just that, though there is a notable and understandable exception taking into account a seat assignment that already comes with extra costs — cabin upgrades or other premium fee-based seats.

“The Families Flying Together Act will put an end to the absurdity of toddlers sitting separate or unattended on an airplane — requiring airlines to plan ahead so that families with young children can fly together,” commented Nadler. “For several years, we have tried to force the airlines to enact family friendly seating policies, and to not shift the burden onto other passengers to vacate their seats so that children can sit with their parents. Thankfully, the new FAA bill includes this common sense measure allowing families with small children to travel together safely and reliably without disrupting other passengers.”

“Traveling with young children can already be very stressful for parents and when you can’t sit together on a flight, it only makes this process more difficult,” added Davis. “All we’re asking is for airlines to do a better job of accommodating parents ahead of time so we can make flying a better experience for families and other passengers aboard. I think most airlines have the same goal. This provision is important to updating an industry that continues to see growth in family travel.”

(Click here for a summary of other new and interesting provisions included in the FAA extension or read this helpful Washington Post article about it. The full legislative text is found here.)

Sticking Up for What’s Right
We at the Family Travel Association have been lobbying for and keeping tabs on this process since early February when we threw our weight behind the congressional effort led by Representatives Nadler and Davis. Progress appeared to have stalled shortly after, but, despite the dire outlook, all hope was not lost, especially when, in early July, Davis and Nadler announced that the core provision to make it easier for families to fly together had been included in the latest FAA extension. This received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Obama on July 18.

“We’re encouraged that Congress has recognized the challenges families face when traveling and is making it a priority that airlines ensure they sit together when flying,” said Rainer Jenss, President of the Family Travel Association. “After all, families represent one of the largest economic drivers of the travel industry, so ensuring their satisfaction isn’t just the right thing to do. It makes economic sense.”

We were also pleased to note that several undesirable provisions included in an earlier version of the bill were stripped away. After making contact with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), we had learned about a provision making it an “unfair and deceptive practice” for travel agents to fail to disclose to families flying together that they can’t necessarily sit together, even though the airlines control seat maps. If not for the advocacy efforts of ASTA, this language would have exposed agents to fines of $27,500 per infraction.

“We want to thank these policymakers for listening to the views of ASTA and its members and not imposing new and unwarranted disclosure obligations on the agency community,” commented Zane Kerby, ASTA President and CEO. “These would have presented massive new costs to our members, ranging from reprogramming systems, to training staff, to ‘talk time’ and opportunity costs from lost sales.”

There Is Still Work to Be Done
It is important to note that this FAA bill is merely an extension of existing law with a few new policy items like the families flying together provision. This extension only reauthorizes funding for the agency at current levels through September 2017. The process of crafting a long-term bill will therefore recommence in mid-2017 and we fervently hope there will be no effort to turn back the clock.

As stated by Jenss in a recent interview on WSPA news (see above): “There’s no doubt that the traveling public has gotten quite frustrated with their experience whether you’re a family or not. So the fact that our representatives are looking out for us hopefully will signal that the airlines are starting to put customer satisfaction back on their priority list.”

Representative Davis no doubt agrees. “While my first choice is a long-term bill that includes major reforms that I believe are necessary to improve safety and increase global competitiveness within our aviation system, I am glad this provision and other sensible reforms are included in this extension.”

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23 responses to “To Keep Families Flying Together, U.S. Congress Passes New Law”

  1. As a travel agent who works extensively with families I am delighted to read that the airlines will recognize the importance of supervising minor children on aircraft. This is great news and one less thing families will be forced to pay to travel securely with children.

    • Ethan Gelber says:

      Thank you for weighing in, Dale. Needless to say, we wholeheartedly agree! We are also very pleased that travel agents like you have not been caught in a net of misplaced responsibilities given the expensive-if-mismanaged disclosures that might have been part of the deal.

  2. John Spence says:

    As President of Scott Dunn USA and founder member of the FTA I could not be happier with this news. It is sad that this was even a battle that had to be taken on, but am pleased airlines have been reminded that customer service and experience and fairness is sometimes more important than anything else. Families make up a large part of our business and the very people who should be encouraged to travel together and in this case means sit together. Well done all.

    • Ethan Gelber says:

      Many thanks for the thought, John. No kidding about how sad it is that we had to fight for a no-brainer. Then again, the comments from some associations representing the airlines make clear that the new policies (about families and other things), while consumer crowd pleasers, are likely to cut into airline profits. That doesn’t sit well with the airlines. So no-brainer though this might be, I worry that this is but a skirmish won, with the battle yet to be fought.

  3. […] To Keep Families Flying Together, U.S. Congress Passes New Law H.R.3334 – Families Flying Together Act of 2015 […]

  4. Veronica says:

    Is this law in effect now? I will be flying at the end of February 2017 with a child on an airline that charges extra fee for a signed seats. I do not want to separated on the plane. Please advise. Thank you.

    • Ethan Gelber says:

      Apologies for missing this when you sent it. The short answer is that as far as we can tell, there isn’t yet a formal law. As consumer advocate Christopher Elliott has advised: “Congress asked for a rulemaking, which can be a long process. Some airlines have informal policies that will allow families to be seated together.” So there’s still a long way to go!

  5. Trish says:

    Yes, I’d like to know, too — is the family seating law in effect?

  6. DrDiarrhea says:

    If you want seats together, book them together online. Depending on the airline to sort it for you based on this law is not a good bet.

    • Dominic Marcello says:

      We did book together. They put my toddler in a window, my wife sitting behind him in another window, and me on the other side of the aisle on a window. Booking together doesn’t guarantee adjacent seating. Paying extra for premium seats doesn’t guarantee adjacent seating. The airlines want families to be as uncomfortable as possible with the entire experience of flying.

  7. Amy Dillon says:

    We just flew United and had two cancelled flights. When we rebooked, our seats with our children were not together. We begged the gate agents to place us together, at least one parent with one child. Our oldest is 11 yrs with epilepsy and our youngest is 9 yrs with a severe food allergy. The airline told us it was up to us to ask other passengers to switch and would not help us. Did they break this law? I spent one leg of the plane ride getting up to check on my children for 5 hours when no one would switch seats with us. We flew from Washington DC to Hawaii.

    • Ethan Gelber says:

      Hi Amy. Thank you for sharing this with us. Needless to say, we are appalled that you and your family had to deal with this. The lack of flexibility from the airline and the lack of sympathy from your fellow travelers just underscores why we so desperately need legislative action. When common sense doesn’t prevail, stronger forces must step in.

      Unfortunately, as was stated in some of the answers above, there is, at present, no formal law. Restating the quote above from consumer advocate Christopher Elliott: “Congress asked for a rulemaking, which can be a long process. Some airlines have informal policies that will allow families to be seated together.”

      We don’t know how much longer this will take. And, in light of the current turbulence in Washington, DC, I can’t help but wonder if it will ever get done. In the meantime, you should follow up with the airline, letting them in no uncertain terms what happened a a result of problems beyond your control. You might also seriously consider reaching out to the two Congressmen who championed the changes described in the article above.

      • Christine Houghton says:

        I work for a major airline in the US and I and other good agents all attempt to do what we can to seat at least one parent with the child or children. Our airline does not attempt to collect the premium seat fee even when that is all that is left. My biggest gripe is that the parents who scream the loudest and are the most rude (often like fire breathing dragons…) approach us only at the last minute at the gate, sometimes after boarding begins. How are we to call other customers up to attempt to swap seats? Also… you who criticize the airlines need to take a look at yourselves when we ask if you will swap seats for this family…. YOU are just as bad when you did not pay any additional fees for your seat, yet refuse to be inconvenienced for a 5 year old for a 2 hour flight…. Sincerely, Your gate agent.

        • steve says:

          your airline should already know the age of these kids, and that the seats were purchased together….the fact that this is done at the gates speaks volumes of the airline’s incompetence.

        • Dominic Marcello says:

          Wow families showing up at the last minute at the gate? That should never happen, families always run on time. They must be doing it on purpose just to mess with you.

          The agent I spoke to yesterday with AA told me that AA guarantees families get adjacent seats. But then a friend of mine who just flew with AA told me that they didn’t sit him next to his wife with their infant on her lap even though he had paid extra to reserve adjacent seating. I guess that AA agent I spoke to lied, but its still my fault if we don’t get seated together.

        • Kate H. says:

          I just brought tickets for my son and I, he is four. There was not warning about seating on the travel site I used. I received two emails a few hours after I purchased our tickets. They were marked urgent from the airlines saying they can and will seperate me from my son and if I want to pay more they might keep us together. I’m not wealthy and I don’t fly often… So, yes, shame on the airlines for tricking me with a low fare even though they know I’m traveling alone with a 4 year old. All they have to do is limited the options on the search to tickets that are paired together. How can they seperate me from my son? He is four!

  8. Debra Alexander says:

    Gee Dominic
    Your friends are 2 adults. The family sitting adjacent rule doesn’t apply here since the baby was a lap child. However, he should be upset that he paid for something he didn’t receive. But maybe they needed his seat to put a parent and child together.

    Needless to say, it’s infuriating to go on a much anticipated trip and not sit next to your loved one- any age. Everyone should be able to assign their seats at purchase time- no fee – First Come First Served basis. Then if that family of 5 isn’t on the ball and their desired flight fills up- so be it. First come first served- book another flight.

    To the person above- families can and do run on time. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions. Yep, s@*# happens, but under no circumstance does that give you the right to inconvenience other people.

  9. Monica says:

    My family of 6 recently flew on United and I had to pay $30/ticket extra to get us seats by each other. I have 4 kids ages 8 months to 8 years so that was an extra $150 for tickets that were already over $2000 for the 5 seats we bought. (The baby was on my lap.) It is ridiculous to make us pay to keep our young kids by us. On second thought, if I can pay less to have my 8 year old talk someone else’s ear off for a few hours, have my 5 year old whine incessantly and make 36 requests a minute and have my 2 year old climb all over someone else and dump drinks in their lap, please, be my guest. But I guarantee your other customers aren’t going to be happy with the situation.

  10. Let's think about this says:

    What is an adjacent seat? Are 2 aisle seats adjacent? Are strangers going to be seated directly next to babies? It is highly likely that during take-off or landing, the baby will cry. A mother cannot reach her baby across an aisle when properly buckled in her seat. A passenger seated next to a baby pays just as much money for their seat as anyone else, but I am certain their flight would be less pleasant than anyone else on the plane. I just read about this happening. A mother sat next to her older child and placed her infant in a carseat next to another passenger. The passenger seated next to a baby was unhappy (let’s be honest…most people would be) and demanded the opportunity to sit elsewhere. While her emotions got the better of her and she did not handle herself well, she ended up losing her seat. Everyone praised the airline and this baffles me. They are celebrated for creating a stressful situation and humiliating a woman who dared to reject the situation. The airline might as well overbook the flight and just make the travel as uncomfortable as possible…then kick off passengers that complain.

  11. Familyman says:

    So basically, more than two years later, this article is a sad joke. Quite simply, there is no law. My five year old was assigned a seat far from mine by JetBlue when we had to reschedule and there was nothing I could do about it – I was told to take it or leave it. I argued with them for over an hour. They would rather have a five year old sit alone than reseat other customers or god forbid put us (or, even better, just one other passenger) into the upgraded economy class seats. I wasn’t going to take the chance on the generosity of others to switch seats given the massive delays and unhappy customers in that situation overall.

    How about some followup coverage on the ineffectiveness of this so called law? Can you try to get any comment from Rep Nadler??!

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