What ever happened to family preboarding?

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“…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

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