United Not Allowing Families With Young Children to Board Early

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First, apologies for the brevity of this post.  My own lovely toddler thought that it would be fun to wake up in the middle of the night yesterday meowing (yes, like a cat), so sleep was in short supply.  I’m out of my old “up for middle of the night feedings routine”, so it’s an early bedtime for me today.  That said, I couldn’t ignore this USA Today article I just saw about United not allowing families with small children to board early.

The old Continental airlines did allow early boarding for families with small children, but apparently the old United did not.  It would seem that the old United policy has unfortunately won in this case.  There is a quote in the article from a Houston-based man that says,

“…..he’s seen early-boarding privileges abused by several adults going on with one child. “It doesn’t take any longer to seat a family in the main boarding (time) than it does with a preboard,”

He and I must have taken different flights, because that is not at all my experience.  If you are installing a carseat, or something similar, it absolutely takes more time, and depending on how many kids are with you, seating arrangements, etc. it can leave you somewhat blocking the aisle for a brief period of time while you get everything and everyone situated.  If you pre-board, that brief period of time isn’t really bothering anyone.  However, if it is during general boarding, then you are holding up the whole line.  It also isn’t the easiest thing in the world to install carseats and harnesses on planes when you don’t do it frequently, so it can be a bit stressful if you were trying to do it, while managing a little one, while holding up the line.

It is much better for all involved to get that part of the process out of the way, get the kid settled, and stay out of the way of the long and already slow-moving boarding line.  Bad move.  I’m not sure who wins in this case, but it isn’t families, and it isn’t those who will be stalled by families trying to get everyone situated.  Trying to board with several young children is really no different in terms of speed than boarding an elderly or disabled person.  Little kids and their stuff just need more time than able-bodied adults do.  This is yet another reason why families who travel with some regularity should see if elite status is within reach for at least one parent.  Or, make sure to get a credit card that allows for early boarding with the airlines you fly most frequently.  In addition to the other benefits it offers, my MileagePlus Explorer card allows my family to board with Group 5 on United.  If you are interested in the United MileagePlus Explorer card, read this thread to see if you are “targeted” for a better offer.  This is right after the premium cabin passengers and elite flyers.  I will do a post in the near future on what cards will get you early boarding with various airlines, but for now just know that United has a new stance on this issue (or at least the old Continental has a new stance).

On the last several United flights I have taken, they have not called for family boarding the majority of the time.  However, when I ask, the gate agent always has said that they just forgot to mention it, but they still do pre-board families with young children.  When I have been with my daughter they have waived me up to board early without announcing it over the speaker.  I thought it was a series of strange coincidences, but looks like it was not a coincidence at all.  Clearly I am not in favor of this decision, but what do you think?  Those with young children, did early boarding help you, or was it one of those things that was nice, but not really necessary?  Those without children, what are your thoughts?


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  1. Well, I don’t have kids since I’m still in college. I don’t mind families with young children to board early but my only complaint is when there are four adults and one child boarding as a family. This especially applies to Southwest when a group of teenagers boarded early due to their younger sibling while taking the exit row seats. Yes, flight attendants are supposed to make sure that early boarders don’t get the exit row seats but they didn’t enforce it on that flight.

  2. It makes sense to allow those who require a few extra minutes to board first (families, handicapped). Unfortunately the airlines are trying to monetize everything it seems. I have to laugh when I see the boarding area separated by a rope and a red carpet on the left and regular boarding area carpet on the right. The latest techniques of splitting up families in coach because of certain seats being premium (as you wrote about in another post) irks me as well. I’d like to think that people negatively affected by some of these rules would fly a different airline, but it appears that many are willing to put up with the inconvenience in an effort to save money.

  3. If the reason for having families board first is so they do not hold up the line, why not have them board last?

  4. Delta has been a mixed bag- sometimes (we always ask) they call us first before everyone, sometimes in group 1 after First Class, and other times in group 2. Us Air did an announcement after First and Elites I believe. If they allow Joe Schmo with no status but the cobranded credit card to board typically after First and the ‘real’ elites but before everyone else, then they should afford families with kids at least the same priority. I concur on all your points! We have a 2 yr old and a 5 mo old.. very challenging with all their stuff. Had Delta silver last year but now nothing.. going to try out Southwest thanks to 2 50k credit cards and CP for wife and I.

  5. Ah, the battle of the privileges. In the bad old days, when I was flying SouthWest, even when I was in the front of the first boarding group, I would end up at least a third of the way back in the plane.

    First they boarded the disabled in wheelchairs with their entourage. Then the children flying alone.

    Followed by those flying with “infants”. Which more often than not meant a group of four, five, sometimes 6 adults accompanying a “child” of 4, 5, 6, even 7 years old. No special child seats back then either.

    I always wondered why a group of adults got to show up 10 minutes before boarding, when I had been waiting for at least 90 minutes, and all pre-board with a 7 year old who was pulling his or her own roll aboard.

    Recently I flew Southwest for the first time in years, and now families board in between groups A and B. Which still means they don’t have to pay the $10 each early boarding fee, don’t have to bother checking in online early, don’t have to get to the gate early. And still get no hassle with on board luggage storage, choice of seats in the front of the plane, and avoid the worst of the gateway lines.

    At least they aren’t sitting in front of me, then taking an extra 5 minutes to pack up everything when they disembark. Leaving me standing in the aisle for 10 or 15 minutes waiting for them to get off the plane ahead of me.

    Your argument is that by preboarding you aren’t tying up the aisle putting in your child seat. Yes, you are tying up the aisle. I just have to stand crushed in line at the gate, instead of the aisle, waiting for you to get that child seat and extra carryons in place. But I’m still waiting in line while you do that.

    My solution is to let families preboard, but insist that they sit in the last 5 rows. Then as they take their time attaching child seats, etc, everyone else can board at normal speed. And the other flyers don’t get cheated out of their overhead luggage space etc by the pre boarding families. Of course, that would also mean non-family flyers wouldn’t wait a extra 10 minutes to off load as families pack back up for again for deplaning.

    Downside is the FAs in non assigned seating situations would have to really enforce that rule, as most families would head right for the first row they found, even after being informed of the rules before they boarded. On flights with assigned seating, only allow family pre boarding for those seated at the back

    Short of that, have a strictly enforced maximum age for preboarding {4?}, and only one adult allowed to pre board per “infant”.

  6. This is a very obviously biased article (yes I know “mommy” points, but what I really mean is that you don’t really point out the bias) I’ll preface it saying I like kids just fine, and don’t really care when I’m next to a screaming baby (yes rare in my experience, but I have headphones so who am I to complain).

    I think people who are slower should be given more time. I don’t know about what kind of sugar deprived diet your kids are on, (“Trying to board with several young children is really no different in terms of speed than boarding an elderly or disabled person.”) but my nieces & nephews can run circles around me. Yes you have to tell them where to sit, but I can apply that same logic to 73.6% of the people who can’t find their seats.

    My issue is with how you have many conclusions in your post, without any basis, yet provided as fact (not as opinions).

  7. @Robert Hanson you bring up a good idea with the family seating in the back. As a parent I wouldn’t mind getting off last if it meant I could get a few extra minutes of trying to get two car seats properly buckled without having people staring me down or pushing me into the seat so they could get by while I’m trying to secure the seat. As far as the age maximum, I think it might make more sense to use the car seat as a criteria. If the family has a car seat they need to attach, they can preboard. Otherwise, not.

  8. I think that a parent traveling ALONE with an infant, or multiple children of a very young age, should be afforded some consideration. It doesn’t HAVE to be at the beginning of boarding. It can be at the end. The idea here is to allow the parent time to get everyone settled without a crowd pushing. Why does that have to be at the beginning of boarding? Like others in debates all over the Internet, I have seen the early boarding privilege abused: One elderly parent boards early, with a family of 6 in tow. Two parents with two ten year olds board first. WHY? Not necessary. Southwest used to have preboard lines 50 deep in some markets.

    I think separate boarding for those who need extra time is a case-by-case decision, but not a rule.

  9. I am a bit less… shall we say, passionate… about early boarding for kids. I have two young children, and while the option to board early is nice to have, in reality by the time we get to the gate the general boarding is often in progress, and we just take our turn with everyone. We’ve never had an especially difficult time. Although we have only used a child seat once, I guess if you do need to install it then I agree, you’d block the aisle noticeably.

    Other than the child seat situation, the key to fast boarding with kids is knowing which bag goes under the seat vs overhead, or what to pull out of the bag before placing it overhead. Then quickly throw wife, kids, stuff, and yourself into the seats, in approximately that order, and you should be ok 🙂

  10. Just as it is most efficient for everyone to exit the plane in the order in which they are sitting (front rows first), it would be most efficient to board in the reverse order (back rows first). If that was adopted, and families with young children were seated in the back, that would optimize everything and work much better for all than the current practice of creating special and ever changing groups with special privileges.

  11. While I know that some of this does have to do with collecting as much ancillary revenue as possible, I do think that the elimination of pre-boarding for families with small children was done to streamline the boarding process. When UA and CO merged, their number of frequent fliers rose tremendously. I recall when CO used to board all elites at the same time. Now there are 4 separate boarding announcements for elite passengers, which many times winds up being over 50% of the passengers. The major problem is that everyone wants to be on the aircraft first and unless the airlines start pre-boarding before the boarding time printed on boarding passes, you will get congestion on the jetway and in the aisles if you board people who need extra time first. I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve seen a whole jetway and aisle full of people waiting for somebody to get settled in because they are older or need assistance. I understand why the airlines and the DOT want these customers to be pre-boarded – it is respectful and best preserves the person’s dignity. You don’t want a plane full of people glaring at you because you are the LAST ONE holding up the flight because you are disabled. Unless a child has a carseat or similar assistive device to be attached to the aircraft though, I just don’t see a need for families with small children to pre-board. I’m sure this decision was not made without careful consideration. This issue may have a direct impact on their DOT reported on-time status. If this slowed the boarding process, and in turn negatively affected their on-time status, I’m sure this would not have been approved. Also in the realignment process, United MileagePlus Explorer card-members should have been moved to priority boarding group 4, and 5-7 should be the general boarding groups.

  12. @AKTCHI, the new United’s boarding process actually does board that way after premium cabin, elites and customers with disabilities. And I won’t expect any of those three groups to lose pre-boarding privileges because they are the airline’s best customers and/or required by federal regulations. There’s actually been some studies conducted that show a random boarding process (like Southwest’s) works best.

  13. Personally we like to board at the very end of the process. My son does run in circles thus we just choose to board towards (or at) the end of boarding to limit the amount of time he is on the plane. That is just how we choose to do it. I find Delta pretty accomodating and they still give him ‘wings’ when he flies. Not sure if the other airlines still do this.

  14. No more worrying about flight attendants moving a family in my seat anymore and others. How many times I have seen people displaced because they boarded first

  15. I’ve always liked the idea of having a family section in the back of the plane. It is nicer to sit next to other passengers with children that are sympathetic instead of hostile to you. It also gives you proximity to the WC. Putting elite upfront is fine with me and might make for a better traveling experience for everyone–especially if families can sit together. I’m surprised that no airline has thought to do such a thing.

  16. When my son was little (under 4) I actually preferred to board last when I had an assigned seat. And I always booked the back of the plane. The less time my little guy had to sit still, the better! Once the plane started to move he would watch out the window and that would keep him busy! When we flew Southwest I would take advantage of family boarding just to make sure we could sit together…but I was pretty good about checking in early so we usually had no problem finding 3 seats..

  17. First off, Thank you Mommy Points for your blog. I do read often and enjoy it.

    I believe only those how are handicapped should ever be allowed to board before elites. I am quite tired of the world changing to reward those that choose to have children. It was a choice you all made and you need to handle it as it comes along. Special parking spaces? BS. Boarding before people who spend thousands a year on the airline on your way to wherever once in a while, BS.

    I know not every parent and not every child is the problem. But situations like what Robert explains in post 5 are far too often to make me care for the needs of those others. The whole “i’m special because i have a child” argument is garbage.

    If you’re a family who really needs to have more time boarding, board last. Get elite status. etc.

    Now if you want to tell me families go before non elites, i wouldn’t have too much problem with that. I am sometimes in that group and sometimes not. But those complaining to board first from that point can also get elite status to avoid it etc.

  18. I read this post as I was boarding a VX flight from BOS-LAX and overheard the announcement for families with little ones to board after FC and MCS. I know VX doesn’t serve many folks but thought I’d report that at least this airline is not following United’s trend.

  19. I’m more than happy for families to have the privilege of pre boarding. However, if they need extra time to get on they also need extra time to get off so should remain seated until everyone else is off.

  20. Love all the discussion! I had no doubt that this would be an issue that not everyone would agree on. However, I will say that I was pretty clear that the post was based on my experience traveling with a child. Certainly I am blogging about my own perspective as a parent.

    I don’t think that families are “special” because they have children – I just think logistically for everyone involved having them board at a separate time avoids the line bottle-necking. Boarding last is a problem because families absolutely need room for some on-board items that can’t really be checked successfully, and carrying all their stuff down a fully boarded plane can be less than ideal. We do often get off the plane last as it is easier to just wait for everyone else to clear out.

    It all depends on the age in terms of whether kids will run circles around everyone. Infants and young toddlers are either unable to walk on their own or, they are slow. I certainly don’t care about being treated “special” by boarding early (who really wants more time on the plane?!) – but I do care about getting my kid settled on the flight in the most effective manner possible. That is something that is in the best interest of everyone (in my biased opinion). 😉

    I don’t need to board before First Class and elites, as families are often in the back away from elite travelers anyway, so as long as you are getting families on before the bulk of leisure travelers I think you are helping families and helping the other travelers not have to stand in the aisle and wait for families to get their car seats installed, kids in the right rows, etc.

  21. we have done it a couple different ways depending on how full the flight is. If full, one parent will board early with all bags and get everything stowed and set up and rest of us (other parent, 2 year old and 6 year old) will board last. When plane not full, we board last. 6 year old has ADHD so cooping her up for extra half hour is crazy.

    • @nathaniel, it isn’t a bad plan for one parent to go on and set up the car seat, bags, etc and the other hangs back with the kids.

  22. Wholeheartedly agree with you. It takes WAY less time for me to preboard and get my kids settled in than it does trying to crawl over everyone with a car seat, a kid in my arm and another one trailing. it’s not a matter of privilege it’s common sense

  23. As a mom who regularly travels with up to 3 children aged 4 and under, United’s policy frustrates me at the very least. The last time I traveled to Hawaii on United, and they did not allow us to preboard. Because we had to install 2 carseats, the flight attendant was then nagging us because they wanted to get the flight shut down and going. You HAVE to have to space of the whole row to get a carseat in properly–meaning that the child and the passenger on the aisle is going to have to wait somewhere while you maneuver things in. Another issue that I have not seen mentioned is that it can get difficult to hold two young children plus all of your luggage if the aisle is backed up after you gate check your stroller. This is less of an issue if you can walk right on the plane early. While I understand abuses, this is a real issue for those of us who travel with young children who cannot yet manage things on their own. I think the answer is to allow up to 1 adult per child under 5 to preboard. If there are other adult family members, they can just board at the normal time.

  24. @Mike and Rachael, totally agree and that has been my experience as well. I think placing a limit on people boarding with small children is fine – though I don’t really view two parents boarding with their children as being a problem. A whole herd of relatives may be a different story. 😉

  25. Sounds like everyone agrees that abuse of pre-boarding benefits no one in long run….

    Maybe those who require pre-board should have to stop at ticketing to “prove” their need. Then give them a ticket with a “pre-board zone approved”.

    Gate agents are busy at boarding and shouldn’t be asked to stop and quiz “how many adults per child? will you be installing a car seat? if you are disabled enough for pre-board you can’t sit in the exit row!”

    Let ticketing agents handle this in advance of boarding. Then you can assure proper usage… one adult per child, only children too young to carry their own bags (age 5?), and only if the family is installing a car seat.

    If you drop your car seat at gate check then the flight attendant sends you back to the gate area to board with your zone. This will serve a dual purpose to improve in-flight safety… too many kids fly without a car seat, yet parents carried it as gate check to use at their destination.

    No lap babies will board early since they don’t use a car seat. Again … using a pre-evaluated and documented pre-boarding zone need will also serve to improve in-flight safety.

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