United Cancels Preboarding: Which Airlines Are Still Family Friendly?


United AirlinesUnited Airlines (UAL) has decided that families with small children can no longer board its airplanes early.

The policy, apparently adopted last month, was only announced last week. According to the airline, the objective here is "to simplify the boarding process and to reduce the overall number of boarding groups." But chances are that United's primary accomplishment here will be to reduce by one the number of airlines that families with small children are willing to fly.

In fact, a lot of airlines have been tightening up their family friendly policies lately. But most airlines -- including Alaska Airlines, Delta (DAL), JetBlue (JBLU), Southwest (LUV), and US Airways (LCC) -- still permit some form of early boarding for families. ("Early boarding" might mean "before most other passengers board" or "before all passengers board.") Even American Airlines, while it claims no specific family preboarding policy, balks at eliminating the privilege entirely and says its gate agents "allow those families who want extra time to preboard" to do so "after first class."

However you define "early boarding," it means precious minutes during which frazzled parents can get the strollers stowed and the kids safely out from underfoot of the other passengers. But the process can be hit or miss. To some extent, you're dependent on the good nature of the gate attendant, the quality of the PA equipment, and your ability to be quick on your feet (and strollers) to take advantage of the service.

Confused Yet?

What we now have is a patchwork quilt of policies among the various airlines. What's more, with rare exceptions, trying to find a straightforward policy on the airline's website can be like looking for a black snark in a dark room at midnight. So to get the straight skinny, we quizzed the airlines themselves to see where things stand.

And we're laying it out here for you here and now:


Families Board Before Everyone Else

Families Board After First Class, Frequent Fliers, Etc., But Before General Boarding

"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"

The Airline Says:

Alaska Airlines


"We provide pre-boarding for those requiring assistance and families traveling with children under the age of two. The gate agent will make an announcement for pre-boarding."

Delta Air Lines


"Delta also thinks your baby is first class! If you've got babies or toddlers in tow, take advantage of pre-boarding. Just before first class is called, the gate agent will announce pre-boarding."

JetBlue Airways


"JetBlue continues to offer boarding for families traveling with children under the age of two prior to general boarding. We ... know that families traveling with small children may have their hands full and need extra time to get settled in on their flights."

Southwest Airlines


"An adult traveling with a child four years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the 'A' group has boarded and before the 'B' group begins boarding."

US Airways


"We do have family boarding. It comes after zone 2 but before zones 3 to 5."

American Airlines


"American does not have a defined policy, but we allow those families who want extra time to pre-board after first class. However, the best option for families is to purchase Group 1 boarding for $10."

United Airlines


"We made the changes to simplify the boarding process and to reduce overall the number of boarding groups."

This, once again, is where the airlines say their policies stand as of today. But as United Airlines has demonstrated, policies are subject to change -- and even when unchanged, we all know how a single grumpy gate attendant or unintelligible airport PA station can wreak havoc on the boarding process.

So tell us: Now that you know what the policies are supposed to be, what are you seeing on the ground, on the front lines at the airport? Who's measuring up, and who's not?

Scroll down to the comments section below and fire away.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southwest Airlines.

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Joshua Neal

I recently flew internationally on United and realized at the gate that they no longer offer pre-boarding to families with young children. This is completely unacceptable in my opinion (and this will be your opinion if you are on a flight with me). I am currently traveling with two children under the age of 4 and soon we will add a third child. Our kids sit in their car seats on the plane - they travel much better this way. I had to carry two car seats the length of the aircraft over everyone's heads. As if it wasn't tough enough to not hit everyone on the head with the car seats on the way to my seat, I had to walk all the way back to the front of the plane to get my carry on bag and return to my seat again. So Rob, if you want to get nailed on the head with a car seat next time, we will board after everyone no problem. Otherwise what is the harm in allowing a family a few extra minutes ahead of the group?

August 01 2013 at 4:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The most un-family friendly airline ever which is apparently being run by people in their Web group. I recently had a flight back from Vermont which was delayed over 5 hours due to mechanical issues. I had my 8-year-old and 3-year-old with me. We considered leaving because they were so tired (it was at night), but were informed that not only were there no other flights that day, but there was nothing for two days at that airport or neighboring airports. We were offered nothing - no food (and everything in the airport was closed), no hotel, nothing, so we stayed. The crew was nice, but United's solution was a $50 voucher which we could use on a future flight. Of course, because they don't care about families, all vouchers must be booked separately so we can not even get seats together. (And I have even tried linking them over the phone in the past and somehow, we still get moved and have to beg people to switch with us.)

February 25 2013 at 1:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emo Babe

We recently traveled on United Airlines and they expected my three-year old son to sit alone. We booked the flight 8 months ahead and paid extra to upgrade and secure seats together, but at the last minute they cancelled our flight and booked us on an overbooked flight. While you might think people will willing switch seats, that's not always the case. We had to beg people to switch so my three-year old wouldn't be forced to sit alone, get scared and cry so hard he would throw up on people... NOT so family friendly. The ticket agent just kept saying, "sorry, there is nothing we can do".

July 26 2012 at 12:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have an idea ?They should sell tickets and assigned them seats in the back of the plane.All families with small children in one section.This will aid in getting the baby strollers out of the way. first. I think this will help when it comes time to deplane.Not to mention a better travel experience for those who want to get some rest.

June 19 2012 at 3:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

american said it best..we want your money and we figured out yet another way to get it.

June 12 2012 at 5:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Pre-boarding should be cancelled by all airlines, period. It should be post-boarding for families with small children and people that need assistance. It will not take any longer and the abuse of the "pre-boarding" privilage will end. How many of you have seen people that snuck past security with 4 carry-ons "pre-board" during the "people that need extra time or assistance" call in order to steal all of the overhead luggage space? By asking people that need assistance or with small children to board after everyone else will end abuses and will not delay the boarding process at all.

June 08 2012 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

United = UNTIED - they continue to spiral down with their level of customer service which they don't have anyway. I try to avoid flying them. They just don't get it.

June 08 2012 at 11:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

United has grown too damn big to the poit where it's become Americas very own Aeroflot

June 08 2012 at 9:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

South West boarding is a joke. I purchased early bird checking hoping to get a good seat. Ended up in group B. South west boarded Business class, witch pays more so OK. Then the Joke all the wheelchairs and families with kids??? some taller then me and I'm 6 feet boarded. I ended up in the second to last row of the plane. Society as a whole is moving to a "pay to play", so if you want to board early pay the fee. See how fast the scam stops. I much rather pick my seat when I purchase my ticket, but S/W is the only game in town for now.

June 08 2012 at 7:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Its all about money.Nothing else matters.Have a good flight.

June 08 2012 at 4:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply