Bill aims to make it easier for families with children to sit together

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Dec. 6, 2014, Atlanta: Richmond Davis and his son Jake, 7, read a magazine together as they wait for flight 9707 to take off at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Delta and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta "flew" about 40 children from the Atlanta area to the "North Pole" to visit Santa's village Saturday. BITA HONARVAR / BHONARVAR@AJC.COM

A bill passed by Congress this week includes a provision aimed at making it easier for families with children to get seats next to each other on airline flights, addressing one of the stresses of flying.

Some families have run into problems getting seats next to each other on airline flights.

Delta’s basic economy seats, for example, cost less than coach seats but do not allow advance seat assignments. The airline acknowledges that families who want advance seat assignments should not book basic economy seats, and warns customers before booking on its website that no seat assignments are available until after check-in.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the second largest carrier in Atlanta, does not offer seat assignments at all. Families with children can board after the first boarding group, before the majority of seats are taken.

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BITA HONARVAR / BHONARVAR@AJC.COM

The legislation passed this week on family seating on airlines is part of the extension of Federal Aviation Administration authority passed by the House and Senate this week.

But what will the family seating legislation really do?

It doesn’t actually put any rules or requirements into effect.

Instead, the legislation directs the U.S. Transportation Secretary to look at establishing a policy directing airlines to allow children age 13 or under to sit next to an accompanying family member who is older — at no additional cost.

There are some caveats: It would not apply when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to a seat with extra legroom or in first class that typically costs extra.

Delta says it is “committed to continue assisting customers… and we look forward to working with the DOT to implement provisions of the bill once the legislation is signed into law.”

While Delta’s basic economy fares don’t allow advance seat assignments, its other fares including main cabin/coach class allow customers to reserve seats when they book flights. If unable to reserve seats while booking via online travel sites such as Orbitz.com, after booking they can go to Delta.com and select seats, according to Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant.

Delta says it “works to assist families.”

Aside from basic economy passengers, customers can call Delta’s reservations line, or if they don’t discover the issue until they get to the airport, they can ask Delta agents in the lobby, at the gate or ask flight attendants on board, according to Durrant.

As a last resort, of course, some travelers attempt to negotiate seat changes with other passengers on board.

The legislation, in an apparent nod to Southwest’s boarding process, specifies that federal policy should not impose “a significant change in the overall seating or boarding policy” of an airline with an open seating policy that “generally allows family seating.”

Southwest calls its open seating boarding process “very family friendly.”

“Under the legislation, the U.S. DOT would first study the issue and then, if it determines that new regulations are required, begin a rulemaking to enable (not require) young families to be seated together,” according to Southwest. “If we get to that point, we would evaluate our procedures based on any new legislation.”

Based on the language in the bill, it could be some time before travelers see any real changes in federal requirements for airlines.

But legislators say the measure aims to recognize challenges families face when traveling.

The inclusion of the language on family seating in the FAA reauthorization bill comes after U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., introduced similar legislation last year called the Families Flying Together Act of 2015.

“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,” Davis said in a written statement. “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 on board.”

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