Air travel with kids or grandkids is challenging enough without also needing to worry about an airline’s boarding process.
Southwest Airlines has a boarding process with open seating that can be problematic for families. However, while there are no plans to change its overall boarding process, the airline is experimenting with a new boarding process for families traveling with children 6 years old or younger. The new process will allow families to board — and also sit — together.
“Our Innovation Team is reviewing various passenger movement concepts at select gates at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, including family boarding, which is one of many processes being assessed as we look to efficiently and quickly get passengers to their final destinations,” a Southwest spokesperson said in a statement, according to USA Today.
It does bear mentioning that the trial is “not an indication of a forthcoming policy change,” said the spokesperson.
A Need For Change
If you aren’t familiar with Southwest’s boarding practice and open seating, it can be confusing.
The airline, of course, offers pre-boarding for people who need extra time to get on the plane.
All other passengers are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a numbered position within that group. Passengers then line up to board the plane, and due to open seating, they may choose any available seat once they board.
Southwest does offer what it calls “Family Boarding,” which takes place after group A has boarded, but before the group B begins boarding. In Family Boarding, up to two adults traveling with a child 6 years old or younger may board together, but the practice doesn’t necessarily ensure all members of a family will be seated together.
That said, Southwest does offer passengers a chance to purchase what it calls “EarlyBird Check-In.”
“While EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee an ‘A’ boarding position, you’ll have the benefit of an earlier boarding position, a better opportunity to select your preferred available seat, and earlier access to overhead bins,” Southwest explains.
How Southwest’s Boarding Trial Works
Southwest’s experimental family boarding process is only offered at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
Families with children 6 and younger will be able to board Southwest aircraft after pre-boarding but before the general group-lettered boarding process begins, the Southwest spokesperson said according to USA Today. Importantly, families using the experimental family boarding option will be asked to choose seats behind the exit row.
The trial will take place in phases throughout February.
A Sign Of Things To Come?
Southwest won’t be the only airline experimenting with how it addresses family boarding practices.
That’s because, last summer, the Department of Transportation issued a notice that “encouraged airlines to do everything in their power to seat families together free of charge.”
Those families include children 13 years old or younger.
“Although the department receives a low number of complaints from consumers about family seating, there continue to be complaints of instances where young children, including a child as young as 11 months, are not seated next to an accompanying adult,” explained the notice. “In 4 months from the date of this notice, OACP [Office of Aviation Consumer Protection] plans to initiate a review of airline policies and consumer complaints filed with the department.”
The notice then goes on to add that, “If airlines’ seating policies and practices are barriers to a child sitting next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult family member, the department will consider additional action consistent with its authorities.”
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