United Won’t Make Parents Pay to Sit Next to Children Under 12

(Photo credit: Scarlet Sappho/Flickr)
(Photo credit: Scarlet Sappho/Flickr)

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Now you won’t have to pay extra to have your toddler sit next to you on a flight instead of next to some random passenger who would have gladly paid for them to sit literally anywhere else.

United Airlines announced Monday it will allow adults with children under the age of 12 to book seats together without incurring an additional fee. The “decision” comes as the US government is gearing up to crack down on the bouquet of hidden fees that have become commonplace when booking a flight.

Flying Blind

When Frank Sinatra released “Come Fly With Me” in 1958, an airline ticket got you plenty of room to stretch out, plus a cocktail and a fully cooked meal. Then, in 1978, the US airline industry was deregulated. This set off a frenzy of airlines vying to offer cheaper fares, which ultimately led to the commercial landscape we see today — one of seemingly endless hidden fees, increasingly meager snacks, and shrinking legroom.

Fees to select seats started to crop up in the early 2010s, and while many airlines say they try to seat families together wherever possible, it’s not a guarantee. The US Transportation Department fired a warning shot last year telling airlines to eliminate fees for families with children under 13 and this month the White House turned up the pressure.

While the US is leading the charge against seat-selection fees as a proxy tax for offspring, it’s not alone:

  • British financial advice website moneysavingexpert.com said in a blog post last month that a family of four could end up spending an extra $289 on a return trip just to sit together.
  • United’s capitulation comes just as the industry is girding itself for a return to pre-pandemic travel volume, barring any more unfortunate FAA glitches.

“What we’re really selling on an airplane is square footage,’’ United CEO Scott Kirby told The Wall Street Journal in June, explaining the company’s mindset on fees.

Green Fees: While the US tries to prune back extra charges, Europe looks set to bump up the price of the average plane ticket. The EU has given initial approval for a new law that would tax airlines for their carbon emissions, and analysts told the Financial Times the scope of the law would mean carriers will need to pass at least some of the cost onto passengers, translating to roughly €10 extra per return flight. There’s no chance US airlines would ever do something like that after they scrap the hidden seat selection fees… right?