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United’s New Family Seating Policy Helps Customers, Hurts Competitors, And Curries Political Favor

United’s New Family Seating Policy Helps Customers, Hurts Competitors, And Curries Political Favor

United Airlines airlines has announced a new family seating policy that makes it easier for families to have assigned seats together without extra cost. This puts them out ahead of competitors, on an issue they see becoming mandatory anyway, and wins them political points with the Biden administration for doing so.

United’s seat map tool seeks out available adjacent seats during the booking process. They’ll use this to make more adjacent seats available, even in more costly coach seats, when children under 12 are part of a booking. A full rollout of the capability will happen by next month.

The airline will also allow free flight change without fare difference when adjacent seats aren’t available prior to travel. Their new policy applies even on basic economy fares. However the policy does not apply to economy plus or premium cabin seats.

Regulation May Be Coming

Although just 0.38% of DOT consumer complaints involve family seating issues, part of the focus on the Department of Transportation’s pending regulations on fee disclosure includes family seating fees, and Secretary Buttigieg has been jawboning airlines over charging extra for family’s to be able to ensure that they sit together. Additional rules are expected.

Family Seating Benefits Airlines

Airlines should want families to sit together. It means parents supervising kids, and it keeps other peoples’ kids away from unrelated passengers. It improves the cabin experience, and airlines aren’t going to lose a lot of money doing it. And it reduces complexity at the gate and during boarding, when families try to get the attention of gate agents and flight attendants for help with reseating – contributing to on-time departures.

The biggest impediment has been technology investment, to make assignable seats available when young children are on a reservation with adults or to program automatic seat assignments to populate together in that case.

United Gets Out Ahead Politically, Imposes Future Costs On Competitors

United imposed vaccine mandates on employees before the Biden administration did. They’ve been out ahead on environmental investments (and looking for fuel subsidies) – funding direct carbon capture, electric aircraft, and sustainable fuels. Now they’re giving the Biden administration, and Secretary Pete, what they’re looking to impose on other airlines.

  • They see a mandate coming
  • United has actually turned itself around on IT, they were one of the least capable but have made vast improvements to the booking experience and their app experience.
  • They’re able to do this. The policy makes sense, it is helpful to a flight to have pre-teens supervised by their parents.
  • And it makes sense to help impose a cost on competitors. If United can do this, other airlines can too. It undermines objections to a federal mandate.
  • All while currying political favor.

This is a customer win, a win against competitors, and a political win all wrapped up into one. United has been very politically savvy since turning crafting of their narrative over President Obama’s former press secretary.



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