Several of my friends have recently attempted their first trips traveling with babies and small children, and the refrain that I most often hear after these trips is the following: “Did you know that Airline X doesn’t pre-board children any more?” Unfortunately, I did know that! But it appears that the message is not filtering down to families who travel more infrequently, leading to a lot of upset parents who were planning to take advantage of a few extra minutes to lug bulky car seats and diaper bags down the airplane aisle.
Generally speaking, I think it is poor policy not to allow pre-boarding. Traveling with small kids often slows even the speediest of travelers down, and it is helpful to have a few extra minutes to get a child settled and strapped into a car seat before the onslaught of other passengers board. But I suspect there is also a real reason for the change. Once most airlines started charging for checked bags, overhead bin space became much more in demand. Allowing families without status to board first often meant that precious bin space would be used by these families before elites could board. And airlines don’t want to make those elites mad!
I think the airlines could do a lot more to inform passengers of this major shift that has taken place in recent years so that everyone’s expectations are adjusted accordingly. Several airlines have a section on their website entitled something like “Travel with Infants & Children,” and this would seem to be a logical place to list pre-boarding policies so that passengers can be prepared. But I was able to find only one domestic carrier – Frontier – that clearly explained its pre-boarding policies on its website. Major airline fail.
Until the airlines do their jobs in this regard, here’s a quick rundown of the pre-boarding policies of the major domestic carriers. Please note that this is the BEST information I can find out there on the web and from my own recent travel experiences, but information is very spotty for several airlines. Please comment if you’ve had recent experiences with any of these airlines that differ:
- Alaska Airlines: Pre-boards families with children under age 2.
- American Airlines: American doesn’t announce pre-boarding for families with children, but if you request it from the gate agent, it might be offered for free (no need to pay American’s fee of $10 that allows anyone to board with group 1).
Families allowed to pre-board, although age limits are unclear.(Update as of April 2014: Delta seems to have discontinued pre-boarding for children as of August 2013. However, I have personally continued to witness Delta agents calling for pre-boarding of families with small children who need to install a car seat. Your miles may vary!)
- Frontier: Families with children ages 3 and under may board after Zone 1 as part of the “courtesy boarding” group.
- JetBlue: Pre-boards families with children under age 2.
- Southwest: Families with children ages 4 and under may board between boarding groups A & B.
- United: No pre-boarding.
- US Airways: No pre-boarding.
- Virgin America: Pre-boards families with children ages 5 and under. (Thanks to family pre-boarding, my daughter got to meet Sir Richard Branson on on of our recent Virgin America flights!)