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One of the Few Travel Perks for Families May Be a Thing of the Past Soon

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Airlines don’t care about me very much. I know this because I’m an infrequent flyer. At most, I travel by plane about twice a year, which means I’m not racking up the miles necessary for goodies like surprise first-class upgrades, baggage checking freebies, an opportunity for a rousing game of Scrabble with the pilot or whatever else the airborne elite are afforded these days.

I’m usually not bitter about it. I understand that unlike, say, a frequent business traveler, I’m not contributing much to the airlines’ bottom lines — not to mention the fact that I often shop for airfare based on price instead of adhering to any specific brand loyalty — so I don’t expect much in the way of perks. It’s the way of the modern world and, as with many airline customers, my expectations for the industry are low.

And yet a recent trip found me not just bitter but downright angry with my carrier. Why? Because I wasn’t allowed to “preboard” the plane to install my 2-year-old’s safety harness.

Preboarding is another one of those perks provided to frequent flyers — you get to board the plane ahead of the general passenger population. But not so long ago, preboarding was allowed for parents boarding with small children, who often require car seats or safety harnesses to fly.

Not anymore.

For my recent trip, we used two different airlines — JetBlue for the trip there, United for the trip back. The trip there was uneventful and we were allowed to pre-board as expected and to install our harness without feeling rushed or uncomfortable. But for the trip back, when I asked the gate attendant at United about preboarding for families with young children, the answer I received was a polite but uncompromising “no.”

We boarded the flight with our originally assigned group, rushed to install the harness and, during the whole 3-hour trip home, I found myself questioning if we’d done it correctly. Is my toddler comfortable? Is he slouching or just reclining? Should we ask the person behind us to move so we can adjust the harness?

I should have done my research. It turns out United had announced it was ending preboarding for families with young children back in 2012. At the time, one consumer rights advocate told CNN she hoped the airline would change its mind.

Well, take it from me, it hasn’t.

I ended up getting in touch with United, first over Twitter then email, asking what motivated the new(ish) preboarding policy and what data they had to support the move. They later responded by sending me a link to the CNN article I cite above and saying that they tested the preboarding change at certain airport hubs first before instituting the change systemwide.

“With more than 140 million passengers annually and 85,000 employees, we’ve had feedback in both directions on this. Many that feel this simplified the boarding process and those that disagreed,” a spokeswoman said in an email to me. “Ultimately we’ve decided that this method is the best process for the greatest number of our customers.”

I don’t have the resources to conduct my own study of preboarding practices, so I guess I have to take their word for it. But as a parent, I’ll tell you that their stance doesn’t make sense to me.

It can take a long time for a family with a young child to get settled into their seats — even longer if the child is cranky, uncooperative, and/or you have to install a carseat or harness. If such families are dealing with the potential trauma of settling in their kids while other passengers are also boarding the plane, doesn’t that become awkward and inconvenient for everyone? There’s also a question of safety — if a parent is feeling rushed to install a carseat or harness, as we were, isn’t he or she more likely to make a mistake during installation?

Unfortunately, United isn’t the only carrier who doesn’t allow preboarding for families like mine, so the next time we plan a trip, I’ll be prepared. Don’t get me wrong, price will still play a large role in determining which airline I pick. But I’ll also be sure to look into their preboarding policies before I book. If airline A and airline B offer similar airfares but “A” allows young family preboarding while “B” doesn’t, “A” will be the clear winner.

I know that that sort of declaration from an undesirable customer like me won’t register on United’s radar … but it still feels good to clear the air.

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