The airline boarding process, for want of a more family-friendly word, stinks. But on Feb. 15, it will stink a little less for families.
That’s when United Airlines’ new policy kicks in allowing families with children under age two to board ahead of everyone but passengers with disabilities and military passengers in uniform. They’ll be able to get on before Global Services members and before Group One, which is other top elites and first-class travelers.
This isn’t because the airline suddenly loves children, but because United realizes that they can slow up the boarding process.
Airlines used to let families board first for free, but then the idea of selling boarding priority caught on. Now, most airlines let passengers with young children board, if not first, at least in the earlier groups. However, since 2012, United Airlines has been a holdout: Families board with their assigned groups unless they pay more.
But the situation has worsened with charges for checked bags. And the uncertain wait time for those checked bags means that even the offer of a free checked bag at the gate doesn’t stop people from wanting to carry everything on board with them.
The hope is that with families boarding first they can gate check their strollers, stow their car seats and assorted other stuff, and then get out of the way. And the policy may well work.
Several concerns come to mind:
- How will United police who is and isn’t under two? (We’ve all seen the “lap babies” who look almost old enough to be exit-row qualified.)
- How many people can board along with babies and toddlers?
- Will flight attendants make sure the families only use the overhead bins above their seats?
- And what happens when families get there in the middle of the boarding process — will they be able to jump to the front of the line, or will they have to wait with other travelers?
As with many other airline policies, the devil is always in the details.
I remember a Pan Am flight from Miami to Paris almost 30 years ago where an agent called pre-boarding for those who needed special assistance, and about 200 people ran to the gate.
And then there’s the dreaded seat swap request. Not that I’m anti-children, but with families on board in advance, it increases the opportunity for them to wait in a row where only one of them is booked, with some variation of, “I know these aren’t all our seats, but would you give them to us in exchange for our middle seats in back?”
Since United is the last major carrier to make the swap back to families first, no doubt these and other issues will get worked out. And most people do try to be considerate of their fellow passengers.
But stay tuned. One thing we’ve learned about the airline industry: Change is constant, and it is never easy.