Airlines desperately want to avoid new regulations on their operations. So much so, in fact, that as new regulations become ever more likely, we’re seeing them change policies in an effort to prove that the regulations are unnecessary. This time the goal is to avoid a ban on fees for children to sit with a parent on planes, part of a White House push to eliminate a wide range of “junk fees” as a means to increase competition and benefit consumers.
The President is calling upon Congress to fast-track the ban on family seating fees so that the DOT can crack down on these practices more quickly than through a rulemaking.– White House statement
So, just how well is the threat of regulation working? Just a couple weeks after the White House made that most recent announcement, multiple airlines are moving to show they can act without rules forcing them to.
On Monday of this week United Airlines announced a policy that would allow passengers traveling with children to select seats together, without a fee, even on fares that typically do not allow for advance seat selection.
United’s new policy is made possible through a series of investments in a new seat map feature that dynamically finds available adjacent seats at the time of booking. The online seat engine first reviews all available free Economy seats and then opens complimentary upgrades to available Preferred Seats, if needed.
While United won’t upgrade passengers to premium seats to allow for selection together, it will allow free changes – including waiving the fare difference – to another flight the same day if if cannot guarantee the seats together in advance. It is a relatively generous policy overall, considering the otherwise punitive nature of basic economy fares.
On Tuesday, Frontier announced a similar policy:
When flying Frontier, at least one parent will automatically be seated with any children within their family group who are under the age of 14. At no additional charge, the airline automatically assigns seats based on family members’ ages before the check-in window opens.
Breeze Airways is also on board, so to speak, sending out a release reminding the industry that is has offered a similar option since it launched service.
Adults traveling with children up to 12 years old on Breeze can select seats free of charge in the designated “family section” at the time of booking.
Airlines have long managed to avoid regulations like this, mostly through an incredibly strong lobbying effort. Or they can, from time to time, adjust policies to be slightly more passenger-friendly in an attempt to convince regulators that the free market is working. We are, undoubtedly, experiencing the latter scenario right now. Will Congress or the DOT be convinced it is enough? Should they?
It seems rather unlikely that United or Frontier would have made this change had the threat of regulation not loomed over them. They can also now advertise the competitive difference they deliver, though customers are unlikely to notice. Which brings up the topic of full fare advertising and the myriad options travelers must navigate to determine the actual cost of getting from A to B with their desired options. Airlines are also fighting efforts to regulate that.
So, yes, it is worth celebrating that a few airlines, under the pressure of regulation on the horizon made a change to bring back a small win for some customers. But that’s not enough to mean the regulations are not needed. Even if the moves came in hopes of such.
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