United says it will make it easier for families to book seats with their children for free

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A United Airlines plane departs the Newark International Airport, in Newark, New Jersey, on January 11 2023.
Kena Betancur | Afp | Getty Images

United Airlines said Monday that new technology will open up more seats on its flights so children can sit with an adult in their party without paying a fee, a type of charge that’s drawn scrutiny from the Biden administration in recent months.

United will show parents or other adult travelers accompanying a child younger than 12 to access “preferred” seats as well as regular economy seats, if needed, at the time of booking so they can sit together.

The change applies to travelers with standard and basic economy tickets and will be fully in effect next month, although United has already increased some of the seat availability.

The airline also won’t charge customers a fare difference if they switch to a flight to the same destination that has adjacent seats.

Airlines in recent years have been charging travelers to book “preferred” location seats on flights. They don’t come with extra legroom or other perks but are often in front of the plane, though they can cover a significant number of seats of an aircraft.

President Joe Biden has called on lawmakers to “fast-track the ban on family seating fees,” the White House said earlier this month. In July, the Transportation Department told U.S. airlines to “do everything in their power” to ensure travelers under age 13 are seated next to an accompanying adult without additional charges.

“Baggage fees are bad enough,” Biden said during his State of the Union address earlier this month. “Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”

Such seats usually vary in price. On a roundtrip between Newark, New Jersey, and Los Angeles in August, preferred seats on a United flight showed as $37 each way for one person.

Delta Air Lines said it blocks certain rows of seats so families can sit together.

“Delta does not charge family seating fees and regardless of the ticket class purchased, will always work with customers on a case-by-case basis to ensure their family seating needs are met,” a spokesman said in a statement on Monday.

American Airlines‘ booking platform will automatically search for available seats together at the time of booking for main cabin and basic economy passengers. Preferred seats and its extra legroom section, Main Cabin Extra, open up the day of departure if they’re needed, a spokesman told CNBC.

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