Do gate agents really seat young children away from their parents in United Basic Economy?

  • According to United, for Basic Economy fares:

    Seats will be assigned prior to boarding. Customers traveling together, including families, will not be able to sit together.

    My husband and I plan to travel this summer with our 7-year-old daughter between San Francisco and Austin (3-and-a-half hours each way). If we buy Basic Economy tickets, will they really seat our child away from both of her parents? (I have no problem with being seated separately from my husband, as long as my daughter is with one of us.)

    To clarify, I understand the letter of the policy. I would like to know how it is applied.

    Update

    I ended up buying the more expensive tickets for me and my daughter, booking an aisle and a window seat, and I got the cheaper seat for my husband. That way, at least one of us will be with our daughter. Most likely, the person in the middle seat between me and my daughter would be happy to trade with me or her, so we are next to each other, or with my husband, which would put the three of us together, but I would not pressure them to do so.

    Since posting, I found these related questions:

    You say you understand the policy yet your asking about how it applied shows you don't understand the policy--that they will **not** lift a finger to seat your family together. Also, you should have paid the extra for him, also--as it is he's on a separate ticket. Harmless so long as everything works fine, problematic if something goes wrong. If the plane is overbooked they might take you two and leave him behind.

    @LorenPechtel I disagree with you that asking about policy application means I don't understand the policy. Not all policies are uniformly applied. Interesting point about risks of separate tickets. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you.

    Why do you think you would have an aisle seat to trade? Basic Economy is going to give you the bottom of the barrel--almost certainly middle seats. You are trying to get something (sitting together) that Basic Economy explicitly does not provide. If you care about sitting together you pay the extra for standard economy, you don't wave the parent card.

    @LorenPechtel You may have missed or misunderstood my update.: I did *not* buy basic economy for me and my daughter: I paid for full economy with assigned aisle and window seats.Never have I suggested that anyone should trade seats with me because I am a parent; another respondent suggested that. I agree it would be inappropriate. You and I are on the same side.

    @LorenPechtel I do regret only reserving seats for me and my daughter, not my husband too. I was so appalled by United's policy (which was new to me) that I was thinking more about gaming the system rather than what was best overall. In the future, I'll keep my travel to less miserable airlines, pay the decency surcharge when I have to take United, and support regulation of airlines.

    I don't think United is being indecent with their Basic Economy offering--they make it very clear what it entails. If all you want is a bare-bones seat there's nothing wrong with it. I do agree that United leaves a lot to be desired these days but this is not an example of it.

    @LorenPechtel I consider it indecent because it pits passengers against each other. Someone who paid full price for a window/aisle seat may be forced to either sit next to someone else's young child or trade for a middle seat. Some of this anger shows in the comments that have been left for this post (some of which have been flagged and removed.) Of course, I don't expect everyone to agree with me.

    No, you are not describing a problem with Basic Economy. Rather, you are describing a problem caused by people who won't respect the rules. It says families will not be allowed to sit together, you come here asking if they really mean that. Sitting your young child away from you should simply get you deboarded.

    @LorenPechtel: You're saying that if UA doesn't seat child with mother they should then kick the mother off the plane? I suspect you meant something else.

    @WGroleau The problem is that Basic Economy explicitly states you don't get to sit together. If the mother buys the tickets anyway figuring the airline can't split them up that's trying to exploit the system. Too bad.

    @LorenPechtel: But your last sentence is still unexplained: "Sitting your young child away from you should simply get you deboarded." Who (parent or airline) is "Sitting your young child away from you"? And why should that get the parent deboarded?

    @WGroleau I guess it's the wrong word--I'm saying that if they show up and expect the airline to seat them together anyway don't let them fly.

    Perhaps UA should have specified a minimum age for Basic Economy, but as it is they are leaving it to the parent's judgement. If your child is old enough, responsible enough, and confident enough flying to sit with strangers, you can use Basic Economy. If not, don't use it.

  • There's no guarantee that will happen, as the new low fare, Basic Economy, is explicit that, for price, you relinquish some options that other, higher priced fares have, including seat selection.

    The carrier will assign unoccupied seats and won't ask other passengers to move to accommodate those travelling together.

    Among the other fare restrictions, United forewarns customers (added emphasis mine):

    We're introducing a new fare option, called Basic Economy, which is available on select routes and in addition to standard United Economy® fares. Created for our customers who may be more price-sensitive, these lower-priced fares provide most of the same inflight services and amenities that are available with standard Economy — such as food and beverages, United Wi-FiSM and inflight entertainment — but with some important restrictions that you'll want to be sure to review carefully before booking:

    Seat selection and upgrades are not available

    When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won't be able to change your seat once it's been assigned. You will not be eligible to purchase Economy Plus® seating or receive Economy Plus subscription benefits. MileagePlus members, including Premier® members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades.

    Group and family seating is not available

    Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together.

    It sounds rather like a scheme for selling middle seats. That would result in groups being broken up, with no leverage for trading to bring them together.

  • I wrote to United Airlines, I got an answer, so I've got the answer to this question.

    That is: no, gate agents do not seat young children away from their parents in United Basic Economy, parents choose to do it.


    Basically reading this:

    Seats will be assigned prior to boarding. Customers traveling together, including families, will not be able to sit together.

    I nowhere got the feeling that they were willingly separating families and group. And this being USA, where you get class actions for sneezing to the left instead of to the right, it's difficult to imagine a company doing this. I thought that maybe it was mostly a matter of bad phrasing, as the sentence as written gave me the impression that they are just stating a matter of fact, not threatening people. And by reading the FAQ is even more obvious, by the way.


    Anyway, this is United answer:

    Dear Mr. Bertozzi:

    Thank you for contacting United.com Web Support.

    Sorry for the confusion with the Basic Economy seating. When purchasing Basic Economy fares, there is no guarantee that families will be seated together. At the time that Basic Economy seats are being issue, if there are seats together, then we will be able to seat parties together. But, in the event that there are no longer 2 or more seats together when it is time to issue Basic Economy seats, then parties of 2 or more will not be able to be seated together. With Basic Economy seating it basically comes down to what seats are left after the regular economy seating has been seated.

    Hope this helps.

    Thank you for using united.com.

    Regards,

    Michelle Hunt

    United.com Web Support


    So, the point is as simple as: you can pay for a normal ticket and choose your seat, or choose the discounted ticket and risk having your children sit beside a stranger on the other side of the plane, because those were the last available seats. You choose it, it has nothing to do with gate agents and airline companies.

  • It states right there:

    Seats will be assigned prior to boarding. Customers traveling together, including families, will not be able to sit together.

    However, I do think that most people are willing to trade seats so that your daughter can sit with one of you guys - assuming this person also has a Basic Economy seat.

    Yes, I understand the rule. I'm wondering how it is applied. It's hard to imagine they'd really put a 3yo, for instance, away from a parent. I just don't know where they draw the line.

    Well, you can always ask the agent and I'm sure they can make some changes for situations like this. I don't know how the computer "picks" the seats, so I can't really answer on where they draw the line.

    The wording almost suggests "Customers traveling together *will be prevented* from sitting together." That might be intentional - for example to break up groups of people looking for cheap travel who might be badly behaved - and/or over-fuelled with alcohol before boarding!

    Do _not_ rely on people trading seats! It's entitled to do so. If you want to sit with your kid, for heaven's sake, buy the right fare.

    @chx I think anyone seated next to someone else's young child would be happy to trade, but I take your point.

    @EllenSpertus If i would sit in an aisle seat, and would have to trade with a middle seat, i would never trade, no matter who sits next to me. So if you want to trade, make sure that the other one gets at least the same or a better seat.

    @dunni Let's not forget that if you ask after they have already put their luggage in the overhead bin, they will likely neither want to move further back in the plane nor move forward and have to wait for everyone to deplane before being able to get their bags.

    Don't expect people to help you. You're likely to end up with middle seats. Nobody is going to want to trade for them. You chose the basic economy fare, live with the results.

    People will be reluctant to trade a window or aisle seat for a middle seat. Also, people sometimes pick specific rows or sides of the aircraft for specific reasons (e.g. being on the left side flying into DCA from the North affords a spectacular view of Washington; being on the left side flying into SAN affords a spectacular view of downtown San Diego). If you want a specific seat, book the class that permits it and reserve a seat.

  • In other countries such as the UK, it's seen as a pragmatic safety benefit to seat young children next to a parent/guardian. Some form of this safety precaution is supposed to be enacted in the US this year after this act from 2016:

    (d) Family Seating.--Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall review and, if appropriate, establish a policy directing all air carriers to ensure that, if a family is traveling on a reservation with a child under the age of 13, that child is able to sit in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13, to the maximum extent practicable, at no additional cost.

    I haven't been able to locate a follow-up to this so am not sure where it stands at the moment.

    The act was signed into law on July 15, 2016. I cannot find anything to suggest that a corresponding policy has been established yet.

    "To the maximum extent practicable" means that it is unenforceable. Any competent management can come up with an explanation why something isn't "practicable."

    I agree with @WGroleau's observation. That said, there are limits, and it might still make sense for a concerned traveler to file a complaint with the FAA pointing out the discrepancy between federal law and United's stated policy. (Sorry for the delayed reaction...the SE server decided to bump the Q&A, and I decided to take a look :) )

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM