Economic Liberties Urges Secretary Buttigieg to Act Now in Protecting Children Onboard Airplanes

July 13, 2022 Press Release

Washington, D.C. — Today, the American Economic Liberties Project is calling on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to end the delay in carrying out a six-year-old Congressional mandate to protect children and families traveling on U.S. airlines. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing airline passenger rights, has refused to take direct action by demanding that all air carriers cease charging fees for families with young children to sit together inflight.

In 2016 both political parties and both Houses of Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which specifically addressed the DOT Secretary to “review and, if appropriate, establish a policy” to direct airlines to accommodate families with kids under 13 by seating them together without incurring additional fees. Under President Trump, former Secretary Elaine Chao refused to act, citing the small number of consumer complaints. A subsequent Freedom of Information Act request of DOT consumer complaint records confirmed that multiple children under the age of 4—including two children under the age of 1—were assigned seats apart from caregivers; some of these children had medical issues, including autism and severe allergies.

Now, after 18 months in office, Secretary Buttigieg is unnecessarily delaying taking action as well. Consumer advocates wrote to him about this and other issues after he took office in January 2021, and asked him to take immediate action in a meeting in July 2021. But last week his office instead issued a press release stating the Department is “urging” airlines to eliminate fees for family seating, and after four months will conduct a “review” and then potentially take “additionalaction” which “may” include a lengthy rulemaking process. This is unacceptable.

“How long will the DOT continue to kick the can and refuse to act on such a critical issue affecting the safety of not just kids, but all passengers onboard commercial flights?” said William J. McGee, Senior Fellow for Aviation and Travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “From any perspective, not taking immediate action against such airline greed is indefensible. To state the obvious: Young children and toddlers seated alone pose a clear safety threat due to emergency evacuations, a clear health threat due to COVID, and a clear criminal threat due to an FBI report noting a recent increase in inflight sexual assaults. Congress already spoke on this issue six years ago, and action should not be predicated on the total number of DOT complaints. How can 1,000 lost bag complaints equate with the safety and wellbeing of a child? Since the airlines refuse to do the right thing on their own, it’s up to Secretary Buttigieg to force, not urge, them to do so.”

Furthermore, the FOIA results indicate that many U.S. airlines rely upon fellow passengers being inconvenienced by either agreeing to change seats and/or looking after a stranger’s child. This is not regulatory policy, it’s a failure by both the airlines and the DOT, and it’s simply unacceptable. Due to the “federal preemption” clause in the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, state courts, state legislatures, and state attorneys general have virtually no authority over the US airline industry. Therefore Secretary Buttigieg is the sole defense for consumers against issues such as fees for family seating, more than $10 billion in unpaid refunds, and the epidemic of last-minute flight cancellations this summer. The American Economic Liberties Project urges Secretary Buttigieg to end deliberation and take immediate action on these critical issues.

 Learn more about Economic Liberties here.



The American Economic Liberties Project works to ensure America’s system of commerce is structured to advance, rather than undermine, economic liberty, fair commerce, and a secure, inclusive democracy. Economic Liberties believes true economic liberty means entrepreneurs and businesses large and small succeed on the merits of their ideas and hard work; commerce empowers consumers, workers, farmers, and engineers instead of subjecting them to discrimination and abuse from financiers and monopolists; foreign trade arrangements support domestic security and democracy; and wealth is broadly distributed to support equitable political power.