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Flying as a family may soon be easier and cheaper

Jenny Hoff

Parents flying with kids may soon breathe eaiser, or at least closer together: According to a section of the recently approved reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, parents may not have to pay extra to sit next to their kids on planes.

As someone who travels frequently with my toddler son, I would rather not have to fork over more money just to be seated next to my little boy.

Currently, on Frontier and some other airlines, you need to pay either with cash or points to pick seats ahead of time. Frontier’s website says the airline will try to keep your party together, but the only way to ensure you’ll sit together is to select seats at the time of booking.

American Airlines is one of the major carriers that is part of a trend of blocking off a significant number of seats for elite status members or those who pay for a full-fare ticket. This means a family of four booking reduced-price tickets to Europe may find only four middle seats in different rows. As a result, parents would be separated from their kids, and passengers with that highly coveted elite status might not feel quite as special with a 3-year-old squeezed in next to them for a long-haul flight.

In an era of often full flights and “preferred” (more expensive) seats in sections that used to be considered coach, families – especially those with multiple children – have been finding it harder to get a group of seats together without paying extra or having elite status (which opens up more seating options to choose from).

That all could change under a provision included in the reauthorization act, which was signed into law by President Obama July 15. The act gives the Department of Transportation one year to review and, if appropriate, establish a policy requiring airlines to seat children 13 or under next to a family member over 13 at no additional cost. Don’t expect to get bumped up in front of the curtain to a pair of empty first-class seats, however. The provision has an exception. It would not require seating togetherness “when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch for which additional payment is normally required.”

The language in the FAA measure incorporates elements of the Families Flying Together Act., a bill two members of Congress tried unsuccessfully to enact in 2015.

The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Rodney Davis, R-Ill., say it should shift the burden of seat placement to the airlines instead of the passengers. The provision “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,” Nadler said in a news release hailing passage of the reauthorization bill.

Until the Department of Transportation rolls out a policy covering family seating, if you don’t want to take the chance of having to split up your loved ones on flights, you might consider earning your way to elite status on the airline you use the most.

Two ways to do this:

  • Sign up for cards that offer elite qualifying miles as a sign-on bonus. (The Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard is one such card).
  • Fly as much as possible on one airline to get your status level high enough to have more options when choosing where to sit.

I’m a big fan of airlines that let you choose your seats once you board the plane, especially when families with small children get to board early. With priority boarding, I don’t have to worry about cajoling some passenger into relinquishing his or her seat so I can sit with my little one.

Of course, you could always consider the inconvenience of sitting separate as a gift of free baby-sitting, and for just a few hours do what the elite status members do: Kick back and enjoy a stress-free flight.

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