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Pre-Boarding Kids: A Thing of the Past?

Cindy Loose

A reader recently complained that American is no longer pre-boarding families with young children. They object not only because it delays their boarding, but they think everyone is delayed as families with car seats and DVDs and bags of Cheerios and diapers etc. struggle aboard with everyone else.

Given my mail, I'm guessing some travelers would vote to ban young children generally, but given that isn't an option, what's the general opinion out there on American's policy -- which no one else, by the way, seems to have followed. At least, let me say I've gotten callbacks from six of eight airlines I contacted -- United and Delta being the missing ones.

By Cindy Loose |  January 25, 2007; 2:06 PM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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One more reason to not fly American Airlines.

Southwest, the best one out there.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 2:24 PM

Anyone who was never a child has the right to complain about common children's behavior on planes.

Posted by: Bethesdan | January 25, 2007 2:26 PM

I guess I'm not sure preboarding accomplishes all that much.

Preboarding is infuriating on Southwest because people finagle their way into the preboard line for completely ridiculous reasons just to have first pick of the seats. On the other airlines, where my seat is there no matter when I get on the plane, I don't care much either way.

So given that, I'd probably just concede to the parents. Is it going to make your flying life easier? Then fine by me.

Posted by: Julia | January 25, 2007 2:40 PM

As a parent of 2 young children, I actually avoid pre-boarding because it just means more time on the plane.

Posted by: Karen | January 25, 2007 2:43 PM

The people with kids should board last. That way the poor kid spends less time cooped up in the little, tiny space allotted to flyers these days. It may eliminate a tantrum or two.

Posted by: F&E | January 25, 2007 2:45 PM

Don't recall the airline, but we had the same problem when we flew with our then-2 year old 2 years ago. We expected to pre-board, but were told no we had to board at the same time as everyone else. We were incredulous, pointing out that we had to carry on and install a car seat, while maintaining control of a 2 year old and some carry-on luggage (mostly things to distract him during the flight), which meant we would likely be in the aisle for several minutes. Sorry, that's the policy. So, in fact, we blocked the aisle for more than 5 minutes (installing a car seat securely in the window seat [the ONLY seat, we were informed, we were allowed to use - not the more sensible middle seat] while hunched double because the bottom of the overhead compartment is only about 5 feet off the ground, is NOT an easy task: then the child had to be passed over and buckled in, before we could finally sit and clear the aisle). Obviously, the passengers behind us were getting increasingly upset, so I stood on a seat and yelled (not in a shouting way, just loud enough for everyone to hear) that we were sorry, we had to install a car seat for a kid, we asked to board early to avoid this problem but the airline's policy is not to allow pre-boarding, so please tell the airline how disruptive the policy was. Most people then seemed to calm down towards us, and I heard several asking stewardesses "is that true?" and getting upset with them when told "yes." So those stewardesses were told by several people in no uncertain terms what a ridiculous policy it was, just LOOK at the result, and that the airline needed to fix that asap. Whether it did or not, I don't know ... we haven't flown since.

Posted by: KJS | January 25, 2007 2:47 PM

I agree that preboarding on Southwest is not policed as it should be, since seats are first come, first serve. I once was the first person in the A line, and some guy who had been near the middle of the B line got out of line just before preboarding and started chatting up a mom traveling with a small child, who were waiting next to the gate for their preboarding call. When that call was made, he then casually strolled up to the gate along with the mom, continuing to chat with her the whole way, and nobody noticed (but me) that he had no business getting on the plane before the rest of us still in line. Naturally, that meant when I got on the plane, this guy had taken one of the only two single aisle seats in the emergency row that was open (she was in the other one, natch), which nullified the whole reason I had gotten there early to be first in the actual boarding line. Slick, but still scuzzy enough for me to remember it years later. I guess I should have rented a kid for the trip myself, huh?

Posted by: CallMeSkeptical | January 25, 2007 2:48 PM

i have a 21-month-old daughter and have traveled extensively with her since she was born, most recently from san francisco to new york city last week. we've flown on american, united, southwest and jet blue. we were only able to pre-board on southwest and jet blue. for cross-country trips, we've been taking her car seat, both for our comfort and her safety. when we aren't allowed to pre-board, this turns into a hassle, both for us and the other passengers. we often delay the flight because we can't sit down until we get the car seat in and get our carry ons put away. this clearly annoys the flight attendants and other passengers. and, there's often little or no room for our carry-ons since we frequently get stuck boarding at the end. not to mention that the lack of meals on flights requires us to carry on more rather than less. i can't imagine trying to get my daughter to happily sit on a cross-country flight without feeding her. we prefer southwest and jet blue, but frankly they don't always offer the lowest fares. i know childless travelers would prefer that we leave our daughter at home, but that isn't an option for us as most of our friends and family live on the east coast. so, why not try to make families with children happier and make their travels easier -- it's better for everyone.

Posted by: frustrated in cali | January 25, 2007 2:49 PM

I'm glad now that we didn't book with American for our upcoming cross-country trip with our four-month old daughter. Although, yes, we could hold her in our laps for the entire flight, we are choosing the safer option of buying a seat for her and placing her in her car seat. I can't imagine not having a little bit of extra time to get the seat installed correctly. Travelling with children is stressful enough.

Posted by: Mary's Mom | January 25, 2007 3:00 PM

Comment on Delta...they don't announce pre-boaridng, but if you ask they'll let you board with first class. At least they do at the flights I've been on from BWI and Atlanta.

Posted by: AG | January 25, 2007 3:01 PM

i know people might hate me for saying this, but why dont the airlines allow pre-boarding for kids as long as they sit in the back 5 or 6 rows of the plane. Yes, you will be last to get off the plane, but you wont be holding up other passengers nearly as much and you'll be located closer to the restrooms which may be helpful. Just an idea.

Posted by: dont hate | January 25, 2007 3:09 PM

We've flown numerous times on Delta and USAir with our daughter (who is now 2) and we've always, always been allowed to preboard on both airlines.

Posted by: PLS | January 25, 2007 3:23 PM

United HAS eliminated pre-boarding. I was shocked by this during our flights over the x-mas holidays.

Delta is hit or miss on the topic. We flew them to Europe last summer, and they did not allow pre-boarding on 3 of our 4 flights (even though we asked for it).

In contrast, when we flew Aegean airlines in Greece, not only did they allow pre-boarding, but they escorted us on and off the bus from the terminal to the plane in the most courteous manner I have ever seen. US airlines could learn a thing or two.

There is NO good reason to eliminate pre-boarding... despite what the airlines might say (and United has the worst reasoning for this: "we just fly too many children," and "it makes our boarding take longer.")

Posted by: Pre-boarding wannabe | January 25, 2007 3:24 PM

I haven't noticed airlines doing away with pre-boarding altogether, but I fly in/out of Orlando a lot and have seen several airlines "suspend" their pre-boarding for parents with small children due to the fact that at least half of the plane falls in that category. I guess it seems counterproductive then when there are so many families traveling back from Disney.

Posted by: manassas | January 25, 2007 3:25 PM

American Airlines allowed parents with children board first the last time I flew a month ago.

Also, American is the first airline to offer a child seat belt to eliminate the need for parents to bring bulky car seats on board the plane for children over a year old. Something I just read recently in their AmericanWay magazine. Check it out.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 3:26 PM

i fly quite a bit and from what i've seen and just read, it seems to make a lot more sense to do post-boarding (southwest might be an exception since they don't do seating).

get everyone on first without any holdup, and give the kids less time to sit around and squirm.

solves the pre-board hangers-on problem too.

Posted by: ffx | January 25, 2007 3:33 PM

I agree, parents with kids should board last. That way the kids have more time to burn off energy and the whole tagging of infant strollers and other stuff won't hold up the boarding process for everyone else. My kids are grown, but I don't remember traveling with as much stuff as I see parents with today.

Posted by: a mom | January 25, 2007 3:40 PM

I traveled sans Dad with our then infant and 3 year old - while I was trying to get on board with his carseat, the baby and him we had to pause a minute upon entering the plane right where the flight attendants stand.

While we were patiently waiting for someone in First to finish up, a person behind me tried to cut in-front of me saying 'let me get out of your way" - as though they were doing me a favor! I stopped them cold - I asked what row they were in, they were a little flustered, but when they finally told me, they were sitting ahead of me. I told him to wait his turn as I was sitting farther back so I would not be making him wait, although with his plan I would be waiting for him to stow his bags.

I'm still angry thinking about it now. It's like the second poster said, let people who were never kids complain about children's behavior. My kids are well behaved but sometimes you get the meanest looks from people. Now that both mine are over 2 we pay for their seats the same as ours, so don't try to complain to me.

How about when you get stuck sitting near someone who talks loudly the entire flight - talk about a bore!

Posted by: GS | January 25, 2007 3:48 PM

If there was some way to be certain that overhead space would be available by the time parents and small children "post-board", I'd be okay with that, but since that's not the case, I want to get on the plane with my kids and my stuff, even if that means holding up others. If my wife and I take the kids together, one of us usually boards in advance of the other and the kids, but if I'm with the kids solo, I'm getting on board as soon as I can.

Posted by: Anon | January 25, 2007 3:48 PM

Oh - I just remembered another time when the 4 of us were traveling and they had my 4 year old son 8 rows ahead of the rest of us. Since we had 2 children in carseats I had reserved 2 windows and 2 middles - but they split up one of the pairs.

Instead of changing the seats before boarding, the gate agent tried to insist that we board the plane and sit in our seats and have the FA fix the problem. It was only after insisting for 5 minutes that I got them to finally swap out seats for us. He could not understand how I was not willing to 1. install his seat into the assigned seat, leave him there while I went back to my own seat and wait for something to change.

Seriously, so many things could be improved with a little bit of common sense! I know that I've had times where I've checked into seat A, and then when they put my boarding pass through the machine it spits out a different seat assignment.

Posted by: GS | January 25, 2007 3:51 PM

If you people really want to get on and off the plane faster then you need to consider something else. See, it is not the kids and cripples in pre-boarding holding you up, it is the people with the oversized bags trying to stuff them in the overhead compartment. Eliminate the overhead compartment and you'll get on and off a whole lot faster. Seems American Airlines would rather us ditch our kids than our junk.

Posted by: lurker37 | January 25, 2007 3:53 PM

Lurker37 has a good point. The fastest, simplest boarding I've ever experienced was a flight to CA I took in August, right after the London scare, so all gels and liquids were banned, even chapsticks. The bins were half-empty.

On my last flight to CA, with the quart-sized baggie policy in effect, the bins were as full as ever. Honestly, there are some very large bags that would not fit in the tester thing that no gate agent ever uses. So, have that tester thing at the end of the jetway. Have the meanest looking flight attendant make the travelers try to stuff their bags into it. If they fail, it stays there and goes underneath.

And finally, I think the option of preboarding kids is helpful, I do think they need to preboard disabled or elderly people who have trouble getting around. (I have kids, and we've managed to get ourselves out of the aisle when we're installing car seats. It's not easy, but doable. I'm indifferent to preboarding with kids.) This poor guy on my last flight was struggling with his walker, boarding with the rest of us, and many of us let him go ahead of us. It took him awhile at the end of the jetway to fold up his walker and get himself steady for the walk to his seat. He kept mumbling his apologies, while the rest of us reassured him. He was stressed, and when I looked, the line was probably back into the waiting area. He eventually got on the flight, and I just wonder how United thought that speeds things up. Besides, given the number of people who let this guy pass, I doubt anyone would have been unhappy if United had allowed him to go on board first.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | January 25, 2007 4:18 PM

Don't hate:
As for putting the kids in the back of the plane, I used to have this same opinion.

Then I joined the "other side" when I had a baby. I would like anyone who thinks that the kids should be in the back try to maneuver down the narrow aisle carrying a baby, car seat, and diaper bag. It is next to impossible to do without hitting everyone already settled into their aisle seats. Plus none of this stuff is light-weight. The closer to the front the easier it is.

Posted by: wtg | January 25, 2007 4:18 PM

Pre-boarding should be about what is most comfortable and convenient for ALL passengers, not just what parents want most. That some parents find it more convenient to pre-board is not about all of the passengerss comfort and convenience. So I actually think eliminating it for families traveling with kids is a fair thing.

Before anyone comments that I will feel differently when I have kids or I must not have flown with a toddler, you should know that I have 2-year-old triplets. And, we all fly once a month, most recently from Dulles on Monday.

Posted by: JST | January 25, 2007 4:25 PM

The best airline for flying with kids is Frontier. Friendly, helpful staff--a flight attendant actually offered to hold my son! They assigned us the bulkhead no problem, his ticket was discounted, the only negative is that every flight goes through Denver.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 4:27 PM

Amen, Lurker. There are tons of things that hold boarding up longer than my daughter. My wife and I are seasoned travelers, and can move light and fast in airports. The bigger problem is infrequent travelers (which most families are) and idiots dragging footlockers around trying to put them overhead.

We both know our responsibilities and communicate well, which makes the whole thing easier. I handle the bags and she handles the baby. We know where each bag goes before we enter the plane - crucial to work out beforehand. We're organized with what goes in each bag. Things we'll need during the flight go into the diaper bag. everything else goes into the overhead bag. Anything that we don't need in the airport gets checked with the carseat.

We'll preboard, if given the opportunity, but usually wait until the end to disembark. On a recent Continental flight with our 4 month old, they didn't announce preboard until we stood prominently at the front and made eye contact with the gate agent. However, she opened it up to general boarding before we were half way down the jetway, so it didn't do much good.

Posted by: Analyst | January 25, 2007 4:27 PM

I think the people who say put the kids in the back also mean the kids should preboard.

If kids are to "post board", then seats (and overhead bins) should be assigned at the front.

And none of this "I'm sitting in row 30, but I'll stick my stuff in row 6 even though they aren't boarding those seats yet". That's as bad as anything else as far as wasting time.

Posted by: MB | January 25, 2007 4:35 PM

There are some very good ideas on here, notably the idea that small children with special (i.e. carseats, etc) should be located in the back of the plane. Then, allow these people to "pre-board", which would essentially be just let them walk down the ramp first. They would head straight to the back of the plane and everyone else could begin boarding immediately. Yes, this would make them the last off the plane, but since they have to unhook a car seat and repack the food, toys, etc. shouldn't they be last off the plane anyways? Not to mention it would be known that the back of the plane is the "family section" and those travelers looking for a bit of peace and quiet would be sure to sit up front. A tremendous idea.

Additionally, the frequent traveler has it right: people who don't know what they're doing are just as bad as families with young children. Stow your stuff and get out of the way. None of this making a little extra room so you can stow your jacket and get out your crossword puzzle while people behind you wait. Move along and we can all arrive sooner and less stressed.

Posted by: Cross Country Flights | January 25, 2007 5:00 PM

Southwest now requires a blue boarding card in addition to a boarding pass to pre-board (where did that term come from anyway?). I don't think non-legit types can sneak by any more.

Posted by: Peter | January 25, 2007 5:03 PM

When the airlines quit losing and damaging my luggage, I'll gladly check all my baggage. Until then, I carry on.

Posted by: Overhead Bins | January 25, 2007 5:04 PM

Too bad so many people view themselves and their circumstances as special. That's one reason why we now have a culture of victims. I fly with my kids very regularly and couldn't care less. I'm sure American is doing what is most efficeint to get the plane turned around as quickly as possible. Too bad they won't ban carry on luggage too.

Posted by: JS | January 25, 2007 5:05 PM

Overhead bins, no one here has a problem with you carrying on your luggage. We only ask that it fit easily (no cramming!) and that you use the overhead space in above your row. Nothing is more frustrating than to me than to arrive at my empty row and find the overhead space taken!

Sorry, I know this is off-topic...just a pet peeve of mine!

Posted by: carry-ons | January 25, 2007 5:10 PM

Effecient boarding procedures are a very complicated and fascinating topic if you are itnerested in chaos theory and applications of queue theory - the long and short of it is that the random nature of boarding problem means throwing in the kids with everyone else and starting general boarding a little earlier (since you need less time for preboarding) will get the plane loaded and on its way quicker.

Posted by: aa | January 25, 2007 5:28 PM

Arlington -

I'm surprised they didn't let the disabled man preboard. I have a relative that uses a wheelchair in the airport, but can walk down the jetway and onto the plane, and they've ALWAYS let him preboard, because it just takes longer. He's flown on USAir and Northwest, and never had a problem.

Posted by: AG | January 25, 2007 5:33 PM

My husband and I flew with a newly-adopted toddler on Lufthansa from Eastern Europe back to Dulles a while back. No pre-boarding, despite our pleas. It was atrocious. We could not make it down the narrow aisle with him, car seat and bag without bumping people. And then we had to install the seat, find space for the bag and calm the child. The flight attendants were not only not helpful, but hostile. It was horrible -- not only for us, but also the passengers around us who got bumped and jostled as we struggled into a packed plane.

The FAA strongly recommends that children be in approved car seats during flights. With this recommendation, pre-boarding is critical.

Posted by: Flyer | January 25, 2007 5:36 PM

I worked in a job that had me couriering legal documents as part of my job for about a year, and during that time I flew an awful lot. In fact I was on the road more during that year than I was at home.

I learned a lot the hard way about flying during that time, & I can pass on a few things:

1. If you are selected for additional screening, it is not because of anything you have, or have not done beyond the usual things like buying tickets the same day you fly... A computer does the selection pseudo-randomly on top of some basic timing related factors. Your plane will not leave without you, they know you've picked up your boarding pass allready. So just relax and pay attention to the directions the screener gives you. They're very quick folks if you can keep up.

2. Pre-boarding isn't allways a good idea with kids. Consider where you're sitting, if it's towards the back of the plane, yea it might be better. If it's up front, waiting till the plane is loaded up is worth it.

3 If you're traveling with a spouse, a teenager, or another adult, one person can board & stow the luggage while the other waits for the rush to die down before bringing the kids on. This also has the advantage of giving some extra time to organize coats, small backpacks, etc. Instinct says `stay together' but at this travel step splitting up briefly can really pay off.

4. There will allways be badly behaved children and adults while traveling. Try to ignore it as much as you can, and to be patient, it goes a very long way. It's better to be helpful if you can than to be annoyed with a situation.

5. Leave other people's children alone. Do not get the little ones in hysterics playing peek-a-boo or other games. Chances are the childs parents will appreciate this as they'd prefer their child to be quiet and well behaved, something that's a struggle in an exciting airplane! Even if the parents don't mind, this will prevent other passengers from thinking homicidal thoughts at you for creating an annoying situation.

I have been in more than one situation where strangers have had to ask, or tell other passengers to leave the children of a third party alone. I have had to do it myself once, & it went ok, but I have also seen a few ugly scenes over this type of behavior too. Here's a tip, the flight attendants are not going to be supportive of anyone's "right" to create a disruptive situation with a strangers kid, period. Seeing those arguments is allways priceless.

Posted by: Gentry | January 25, 2007 6:06 PM

I agree that preboarding with a toddler is a must! My 6 yr old is easy now (we check his booster seat), but it takes time for me to install my 3 yr old's car seat in the window seat! I have to use a seat belt extender to install the seat properly (means waiting for the flight attendant to bring one to me). My husband holds our 3 yr old and watches most of the carry-ons too while I do the installation. Do others really want to wait in the aisle behind us while we do this? What if the person in the aisle seat has already seated? He/she must get up out of their seat too. We always wait til everyone else is off after landing before we move. Why is it getting so hard for folks to be considerate of others?

Posted by: carusocm | January 25, 2007 6:13 PM

I like the idea of creating a "family section" at the back of the plane, and preboarding into that.

But it also seems like airlines should

1. Require EVERYONE who flies to have a ticket. None of this holding a toddler on your lap so he spills over onto the other seats nonsense. Everyone has a ticket. Period. Is risking a child's life really worth saving a few hundred bucks?

2. Once the airline requires everyone to have a ticket, they could provide the child seats. That way they'd definitely be right for the airplane seat - and could even be installed ahead of time, if all goes well. I wouldn't even mind if they were made available at no charge. Then the stroller, the car seat, and all the other big stuff could be checked.

And for the poster who complained about having to put a car seat in the window seat - that's for safety reasons. They don't want anything that might block the "aisle" in front of the seats in an emergency. Which is more important to you, safety or convenience?

Posted by: Indianapolis | January 25, 2007 6:39 PM

My favorite experience was when we asked to preboard with our 6 month old twins and almost three year old. United told us "no!" I asked again explaining that we needed to install 3 carseats and then the person who installed the carseats needed to come back and help me carry babies because we had to gate check the double stroller at the top of the ramp. Again, we were told "no." So, my husband went on with our son and the carseats and I waited and waited for him to come back. Of course, I am the last person in the waiting area and the United rep rushes up to me and says I have to board immediately because the plane needs to leave. I looked at her and said that I needed an extra set of hands to board because I had two babies, several carry-ons (because you have to bring enough food to feed an army on those cross-country flights!), and no stroller because I had to gate check it at the top of the ramp. I reminded her then that I had requested a preboard to avoid such a situation.

Another fun experience is when they forget to put your gate checked stroller on the airplane -- it's happened three times now. Basically impossible to move through the airport without it.

Posted by: 1+2 mom | January 25, 2007 11:06 PM

Children: why we have Amtrak.

Seriously, for trips under about 600 miles, the train can be a very viable option for families. Seats like first class on an airliner, lots more room to move around, much less security hassle, better scenery out the windows. I rode the AutoTrain back from Orlando last month and it was delightful. Friendly, interesting passengers of all ages, good food with multiple choices of entrees, great service from our car attendant, and I slept like the proverbial baby all night. The fares are usually competitive with most airfares as long as you ride in coach.

Posted by: Scott | January 26, 2007 12:12 PM

I'm in favor of preboarding very young children. I find it amusing and frustrating that some people seem to think that nine-year-olds qualify.

Posted by: Liz | January 26, 2007 12:40 PM

I fly a lot and don't have any children. I support pre-boarding for families with small children.

That being said, there are things everyone can do to make the boarding process easier.

1. Don't stand by the entrance to the jetway until they call your row. If you are in 15D, you will not get on with the first class or premier boarders. You just look stupid.

2. If you will be reading a book, watching a DVD or listening to an iPod. Take those out of your carryone before you board. That way, when you get to your seat, you can just toss those things on the seat and put your bag up above and not have to deal with it until you have landed!

3. If you are sitting in the back of the plane don't stow your luggage in the first empty bin you see. It is not fair to those who are sitting in that row. But more importantly, someone can go through your stuff and you'll never know. I had a coworker who stored her laptop bag in an overhead bin in the front of the plane, while she was in the back of the plane. She didn't want to carry it all the way to the back. When she arrived at ATL, the case was there, but the laptop was gone. She not only lost the company's laptop and everything she needed for the meeting, she was fired.

4. Please carry shoulder bags in front of you!! A UAL flight attendant told me of a passenger in an asile set that got his nose broken by a shoulder slung bag. He sued the person and won!

I'm not a fan of kids, but when I see a single parent trying to board with two toddlers and all that other stuff, I realize they need a break.

Posted by: daninannapolis | January 26, 2007 1:55 PM

I absolutely agree. Many bags that "fit" in overhead bins really don't. However, much of the problem comes from the first person who places their bag overhead. On my last flight, I was attempting to load my bag but in order to do so had to rearrange the person's who had put theirs in sideways. Which, of course, prompted him to say "Hey! That's my bag!" Yes, sir, I know it is, but if you had put it away correctly, this wouldn't be a problem.

Posted by: Overhead Bins | January 26, 2007 4:09 PM

C'mon people, grow up. If you can't afford to charter a plane, bend over and take it like a man.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 29, 2007 4:29 PM

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