What ever happened to family preboarding?

“…I have to wonder how many Southwest travelers will grow to resent this new system of boarding, where families are more likely to get split between rows and fellow passengers like my neighbors—who boarded the aircraft solo—are even more likely to end up ‘traveling with children’?”

Southwest Airlines has for years been regarded as one of the more family-friendly airlines, and I believe it continues to serve families well with respect to low internet fares, discounted infant fares for children under 24 months in seats, and perhaps most significant to families these days: two free checked suitcases per paid traveler. For this reason alone I have renewed interest in flying our brood on Southwest, and frequently.

But there’s been a big change. When families with young children used to take advantage of “family preboarding” on Southwest flights, it made little difference that Southwest seats are not pre-assigned. Preboarding was the only way a family could be sure it would be seated all together on a Southwest flight. Now? We marveled on a recent flight as “Group A” began to board, and continued to board, with the attendant assuring us families would indeed be allowed to “preboard”—as soon as the rest of the long line of travelers were all onboard.

As we finally boarded with two children and a lap child, the seat rows were a checkerboard of travelers flying solo. My hubby found one of the last rows left with 3 uninterrupted seats, and I sat with our lap child next to a window, hoping a chatty neighbor would not thwart my plans for the baby’s in-flight nap. Parched, I also wondered if I could impose on my fellow travelers to set a Southwest-issued beverage on one of their trays as I might have done with my husband or older child next to me since my tray was within full reach of my lap child.

And although two of our family’s full-price passengers weigh a mere 40 lbs. and occupy little over half of an airplane seat, I did not have the advantage of the extra room on their seats beside me as usual for the legs of the overtired baby, as he instead sprawled across my lap and played footsie with my neighbor’s white-trousered thigh. Fortunately for all of us, she liked children—and did not order hot coffee on that early morning flight. Nor did she set an enticing laptop computer on her tray, like many passengers on that flight.

Meanwhile, on a different row, my husband kept the girls entertained by making cards for me to tell me how much they were missing me on the flight. These were delivered as they all three made way to the tiny lavatory, no one wanting to be left behind at the seats alone.

All-in-all, it was a good refresher on some of the finer points of flying alone with babies and young children, and made me appreciate how there are some aspects of flying that are easier now as a family of 5 than in the earlier days as we got our bearings traveling with just one baby—with most airlines.

On our return, we were a little luckier, and smarter, and muscled our way in to get 4 seats across. With my two daughters beside me and the arm rests up, we had plenty of room—enough for the baby to sit comfortably beside us on the seats and share toys and snacks with his sisters. Trips to the lavatory were made only two at a time. I got my complimentary beverage—and did not end up wearing it.

However, as the final passengers boarded the flight, an announcement was made: Anyone who was willing to change seats so that a mother could sit beside her daughter would be rewarded with “a free adult beverage.” One passenger apparently benefitted from the Southwest “family post-boarding,” but I have to wonder how many Southwest travelers will grow to resent this new system of boarding, where families are more likely to get split between rows and fellow passengers like my neighbors who boarded the aircraft solo are even more likely to end up “traveling with children”?

Is there really that much benefit to having families with children under 5 years board the aircraft after earlier groups—as many airlines now practice, while giving priority to their highest-paying travelers and high-status loyalty program members? I can understand the advantages when the first to board are seated in a specific section of the aircraft—like an elevated business class on a jumbo jet. But when those seated on the aisle in First Class receive the gentle thuds of car seats passing by, I have to wonder who’s really benefitting from family post-boarding?

How about you?
Has your family been separated on a recent flight? Do you take advantage of family preboarding—before or after the Gold Members? Do you think Southwest should give seating priority back to families?

Giveaway in progress: Where will your travels with baby take you? Comment to the facebook page and you could win a signed copy of Travels with Baby. Ends 8/25/10.

Related posts and pages:
5 Ways Airlines Can Help Make Happier Travelers of Us All

Safe journey,
 
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
http://www.travelswithbaby.com/

15 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    You people are not complaining because you can't sit together – because there are plenty of open rows in the back of the plane after 'A' group boards. You people are complaning because you can't sit in front of the plane anymore. Cry me a river…

    This is designed to keep all your loud brats in the back of the plane, so people like me can enjoy a quieter, more plesant trip in the front of the plane.

    You people seem to forget that flying isn't a 'right', its a privelege. And you breeding kids is a life-choice, not a 'handicap' to get you to the front of the line. If you don't have the mental discipline to 'check in' 24 hours before departure, you don't deserve the 'A' group like the others do.

    If you don't like the new policy, pay more for a business ticket or use another airline. If you can't afford to play $20 bucks more for a business ticket, then what in the hell are you doing breeding & having kids in the first place if you are poor? Thats a form of child abuse in my opinion.

    This new Southwest policy makes my trips alot more quiet when I fly this airline because I know what part of the plane to avoid with your undisciplined-loud-crying brats.

    Don't like it? Drive or take the bus!

  2. Anonymous

    I just flew southwest for the first time in six years and I am completely appalled at their lack of family friendliness I paid for business select asked if I could preboard with my two children a 4yr old and a 4 month old reply was of course no but they still didnt let me board as a business select customer I was fuming I am a single mom carrying an infant with a diaper bag and watching a 4 yr old making sure shes right next to me I dont think i will ever fly southwest again I used to complain about delta and united however they may have stopped the preboarding for families as well but they have always made exceptions knowing that its all assigned seating and parents just want to get out of other passengers way quickly and get their kids settled

  3. Anonymous

    The whole point of Southwest is that it's cheap because it's like a bus. Would you whine if you didn't get to sit together on a city bus and it was crowded and you couldn't drink your drink because someone's elbow was there? Or would you just rent a car already?

    Families should be strongly encouraged to buy the pre-boarding upgrade that allows you to get a boarding priority. Or, hey, you could pay more to take an airline with assigned seats.

    If your party has a strong need to sit together or board early, for whatever reason, those are the options.

    If you can't carry a car seat and your kid and your diaper back, then don't. Check the car seat. Duh.

    I don't see why having a kid entitles you to fly cheap AND get the privileges that other people pay for.

  4. Laura

    We just flew from Bangkok to Seattle, via Tokyo, and were not allowed to pre-board with our toddler (and his car seat). I never realized how important family pre-boarding was until this experience. Besides all the general amount of extra stuff, including various things to keep him occupied during the long flight so that he would not cry and disturb everyone on board, we had the car seat to contend with. We'd brought it on the plane so that our child would be safe and comfortable for the flight and hopefully fall asleep. Because we were allowed no extra time to board, my husband struggled to strap in the car seat while I (5 months pregnant) tried to keep my son from climbing all over everyone else's seat or in the aisle. Meanwhile, more passengers are piling on board. Good times. Why not allow family pre-boarding? It really is to everyone's benefit.

  5. Sara T

    I had a horrible experience on Southwest traveling solo with my almost 1 year old. Since she wasn't quite walking yet I had to carry her, her carseat, and the diaper bag down the aisle. With only one hand to hold the car seat, I didn't have the strength to lift it over my head. It was nearly impossible not to smack half those A-group passengers in the head with it as I staggered to the back of the plane looking for two open seats next to each other.

  6. susieandrew

    If you were assured of family pre-boarding, it was not UA if it was within the last several years. I'm current Premier Executive on UA and can assure you that outside of the stray gate agent who allows it, families are not pre-boarded.

    However, they do offer this benefit on Continental and Delta. On CO, it is after first class and elites, but before general boarding. IIRC, it is the same with DL. CO actually announces it, DL you have to ask and go up on your own when they start calling zone 1.

    I *think* US also pre-boards, but it's been a few months and I was on a business trip, so I wasn't paying very close attention. No recent experience with American.

    Of course, the difference between Southwest and the legacies is that the latter allow you to select your seats in advance.

    My personal preference is to get those kids on the plane as quickly as possible. It's just so much easier to shuttle the kids in and to strap in that carseat when the aisles and seats are not crowded full of people. I would hate to have to ask someone in the aisle to step out into the aisle, potentially blocking other passengers, as I struggled with a kid and a carseat. Being Premier Exec on UA is VERY useful in that regard as it is the next group to go after the top tier elites and first class.

  7. Chris Klein

    We do not enjoy flying on Southwest but sometimes don't have a choice. The lack of assigned seating makes the whole experience very stressful and trying to get the kids through security, fed, and diapered takes time and is a problem on morning flights. Last year when we flew SWA I got separated from my wife and infant. No one was willing to switch seats and my heart sank every time I could hear our infant wailing in the back. Luckily once the seatbelt lights were off we were able to find room to stand in the back galley of the plane to get him to nod off.

    We had to fly Southwest again last week and this time we paid the extra $10 per person to get preferred seating. We ended up getting As and being among the first to board, which helped a lot. Definitely recommend it.

  8. Baby Talks

    The majority of my flights are on Hawaiian Airlines and I am so thankful that they still do pre-boarding for families with small children. It's still after first class and their Premiere members but it's such a relief to be calmly settled in our seats rather than struggling in the crowded plane. Thanks for this post, I'll consider this the next time I plan a flight with my toddler.

  9. Julie

    Last time i flew south west they did this too. we were boarding a plane that already had passengers on it so by the time we got to pre board we went all the way to the back and there were no two seats together. luckily someone was nice enough to switch us.Now when i travel alone with my daughter i choose different airlines id rather pay more then feel stressed about finding two seats together

  10. Elizabeth

    I love SWA because I don't mind feeling like cattle and the seats in the very back of the plane are usually still empty after Group A boards, and that's usually where we choose to sit. With one 5-yr-old, a 3-yr-old and a baby on the way, being that close to the bathroom is a must and the roar of the engines usually puts both boys to sleep within an hour. I'm one of those people who checks as many bags as possible so I'm not lugging everything on the plane, so I'd much rather have free checked bags than worry about whether my seats are assigned.

  11. Shelly Rivoli

    Thanks for your comments! I think it was a United flight where I first watched Platinum and Gold members board as I was assured we still had family preboarding rights. Two other points I didn't make about "the Southwest scramble": 1) What family preboarding there is only applies to families with a child under 5 — families with older kids don't get the option, and 2) Families installing a car seat must not only have a window seat for the car seat–which could hopefully be preassigned, but hopefully a seat or two next to it (unless they're going to offer a free adult beverage to the poor sucker sitting next to the toddler in the car seat!)

  12. Shelly

    We generally have assigned seats flying Delta so we don't have the issue of the seat scramble. But I have always been a big advocate for NOT boarding early when/if they call families with children because I think it's more difficult to have them sitting and waiting even longer. We always wait until the very end and then board.

  13. Ian and Wendy Sewell

    United has also stopped pre-boarding for those traveling with children which has made it VERY interesting on some solo flights I've made with our daughter. I really don't get it – it's a "perk" that is costing them NOTHING. Taking it away meant that I was struggling to get her out of the Ergo while seated next to my fellow passengers. Of course, I had to put her in the Ergo – how else would I put the car seat in its bag, and stack it on the stroller and wheel the whole thing down the gangway while carrying her and the diaper bag – WITH all the other passengers? With our second one on the way, I can't wait to try this with 2 under two…

  14. Emily E.

    We generally refuse to fly SWA unless absolutely necessary. Sorry- I'm not cattle and don't like to be treated like it. I don't check bags so I could care less that the bags fly for free. When my husband HAS to fly SWA, he pays for the "business class" so that he can board first.

    We almost always fly Delta where my husband and I are elite. So we always board first anyways. Last flight we had to fly Frontier and they had preboarding for families with children under 5/and those sitting in the first four rows. We were both so we had no problems.

  15. HarmSkills

    interesting. yeah as SW does not service NYC I dont really think about flying with them. But the whole un assigned seats makes me nervous anyway. I hate the cattle call of getting on the plane or having to make sure exactly 24 hours in advance that you print your ticket at home to assure group A.

    I like to board early if i feel i need it, but not too early sometimes because toddler gets anxious enough. I prefer Jet Blue for low fares and you can check one bag free. They ahve teh nicest customer servcie too. And more space between rows

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