A traveler looks at a flight information board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on January 11, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia.
'The system is stressed to the max': United CEO weighs in on industry woes
03:26 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Reclaim It” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

On Monday, United Airlines announced that it will allow children under 12 to sit next to a family member for free starting in early March.

A new feature on the airline’s online seating selection program will show parents more options for adjacent seats for children when we book our tickets. And if there aren’t adjacent seats, it will let us switch to a different flight to the same destination with adjacent seats, without additional charges.

Kara  Alaimo

For parents of young children like me, this is a very welcome change. But it’s also a testament to how hostile airline travel is to families that this policy is new – and not offered by all airlines. It’s just the start of what all airlines should be doing to make air travel more family friendly – and by extension, easier for everyone.

When my husband and I recently traveled on United, we paid extra for preferred seats, because it was the only way we could ensure that we would not be separated from our three-year-old. Otherwise, we would have been at the mercy of strangers to switch seats with us.

If you’ve ever scrolled through forums for air travelers, you know how contentious switching seats can be. People who travel together often like to sit together, but it feels unfair to ask other passengers to move to less desirable seats – especially if they’ve paid extra to get their preferred ones. With the lowest-cost fares, passengers have to pay extra to select their seats.

But what I’m talking about here goes far beyond comfort and convenience. This is about the safety and well-being of young children. It shouldn’t be up to other passengers to decide whether kids are protected by being placed near their parents. Airlines should ensure it. So I’m looking at other airlines to follow United’s lead here and implement similar policies.

Airline travel has never been easy, but in recent years things have gotten much worse. Last year, flights were marked by “delays, cancellations, long lines, strikes, fewer flights, higher fares,” CNN reported.

Meanwhile, a survey of traveling families by the Family Travel Association and NYU’s School of Professional Studies released in October found that families are eager to start traveling again – but also more cautious about doing so and cost-sensitive, given the higher cost of living families are facing. I bet United’s new policy, which allows families to book Basic Economy tickets without additional fees for sitting together, will incentivize more families to travel.

And United has said it will roll out more family-friendly features this year. That’s good to hear, because we really need them. Last month, when my husband and I took our three-year-old on a quick trip to Florida, we left our one-year-old child home with extended family, because travel is such a nightmare that we thought she’d be happier not coming along.

There are many measures airlines should take to help families with young children. If airlines want to incentivize more families with young kids to travel, they need to make it a whole lot less difficult. Here are a few ideas.

First, airlines should consider giving priority for bulkhead seats, which come with more space, to families. As we all know, young children are meant to explore the world around them – not sit perfectly still and quiet for hours so as not to annoy the hundreds of other people crammed into an astonishingly small space all around them. Having the room to stand up and wiggle a bit mid-flight would be a big help for kids.

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    Airlines should also print free codes to access the in-flight Wi-Fi on the boarding passes of children. While many parents try to limit our kids’ screen time, flights are an extreme situation where a lot of us are willing to let them put on headphones and watch YouTube Kids in order to stay happily occupied. I speak from experience when I say that this policy would make flying more pleasant for everyone on board, not just the parents.

    In addition, airlines should print coloring books about air travel and other activities and have gate agents and flight attendants pass them out to kids stuck in the airport when their flights are significantly delayed (which happened on three of the last four United flights I took with my children), or when they need a distraction mid-air.

    This would also be a great way of cultivating interest in aviation and perhaps even encouraging children to think about becoming pilots in the future – a smart move given that the industry is expected to face major shortages of pilots in the coming years.

    Of course, things like this wouldn’t just incentivize families to travel more. They’d make flights more pleasant for everyone involved, helping United – and other airlines – live up to the promise of delivering “friendly skies.” That would likely make everyone happier about the prospect of air travel, giving the industry just the reputation boost and economic lift it needs.