United Changes Early Boarding Policies for Families with Children

Published by Anne McDermott on May 24, 2012

If you'll be traveling with young kids this summer, forget boarding the plane ahead of the crowds on United. As of this month, the airline has dropped the traditional pre-boarding for families.

Yes, Families Can Sit Together on Planes (here's how)

Changes for Flying Families

Actually, United abandoned the practice some time ago, according to media reports, but the policy was reinstated after its merger with Continental which did allow family pre-boarding. Now, it's gone again. FareCompare contacted United to find out why – meanwhile, that airline isn't the only one that does not allow early boarding for families.

American Airlines hasn't had any formal pre-boarding for families for years. However, according to spokesman Tim Smith who told FareCompare, "We do make an announcement regarding anyone who thinks they may need extra time or assistance, but it is not directed at families per se." He added that gate agents are on the lookout for "customers or families that may look like they need extra time or assistance."

Early Boarding Children Get Younger

One big change travelers may have noticed over the past few years: the falling age requirement for children of pre-boarding eligible families. Some airlines used to extend these privileges to families with any kids or sometimes 'young children' but in recent years many appear to have adopted a 'toddlers and infants' only rule.

Flying with Kids: Ultimate Survival Guide

Airlines: Pre-Boarding Policies for Families with Children

The information below was provided by airline websites or direct contact with airline representatives.

  • Alaska – Pre-boarding allowed for families with children under age of two
  • American – No hard-and-fast rule – families with children can sometimes board early
  • AirTran – Pre-boarding allowed for passengers traveling with an "infant in arms"
  • Delta – Pre-boarding allowed for families with "small children"
  • Frontier – Pre-boarding allowed for families with children aged three and under
  • JetBlue – Pre-boarding allowed for families with children under the age of two
  • Southwest – Pre-boarding allowed for families with children under the age of five
  • Spirit – Nothing on their website but according to a spokeswoman, "Customers traveling with children under the age of two are invited to board during our Zone 1 boarding"
  • United/Continental – No blanket pre-boarding – per United's website, "Families with infants or with children who are under the age of 4 board the aircraft when their group number is called"
  • US Airway – Pre-boarding allowed for families with children under the age of five
  • Virgin America – The airline will "entertain reasonable requests [for special assistance] for guests traveling with children"

Q&A: Screaming Kids on Planes

Why Give Families with Kids Special Treatment

The idea behind early boarding for families isn't so much a courtesy as a necessity, since it often takes families longer to get themselves seated. Allowing them to cut-in-line ahead of the crowd means fewer traffic jams in the aisles – or so the theory goes.

However, times change, and so do airline bottom lines. The real reason for halting early boarding may be fees.

5 Airline Fees Worth the Money

How Airline Fees May Affect Pre-Boarding

These days, many airlines slap fees on whatever they can, including baggage, blankets and pillows, snacks, preferred seating and – early boarding. On United, you can pay for an upgrade to premium seating which includes priority boarding. American Airlines offers two options for this: Group 1 Boarding and the Boarding and Flexibility Package with varying costs depending on length of flight. At $10, Southwest's EarlyBird boarding is one of the cheaper options.

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