Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Family Vacations and Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines had always been my favorite airlines to fly with my kids. They are often the most affordable airlines, they allowed people with small children board first, they are always friendly, and the fact that they didn’t feed you didn’t matter because you always bring tons of food when travelling with small children. For all these reasons I told everyone, the only airlines to fly with kids is Southwest. However, since my last family vacation Southwest had changed their policy about families with small children getting to board first. The new policy was that if you were travelling with small children you board between group A and group B. This might mean 50+ people boarding before you.

So why does this matter? Why should people with small children be entitled to early boarding? The reason is that it takes us a lot longer to get settled with squirming kids, and our maximum allowed number of carry-on bags, a stroller, and multiple car seats to set up on the plane. This completely blocks everyone else from getting past you until you’re settled. Also, since Southwest has a first come first serve seating policy you might have to break a large family group up rather than having them all together (yes, I admit that getting to go between group A and group B you will almost always find 3 seats together, but you won’t necessarily find 3 rows of 3 seats together which is nice when you are traveling with a family group of 8 or more people).

I just finished a family vacation where we flew Southwest (mostly because it was the only airlines that flew direct to our location). So while I was waiting for boarding to begin I asked someone from Southwest why the change in policy? Her response was that she wasn’t entirely sure, but she did know that a lot of people were abusing the family-with-small-children-board-first thing, and a lot more people without kids were complaining about family-with-small-children-board-first thing. I know that I for one definitely did abuse the policy: I would use my then 2 year old daughter as a first class board first ticket for me and 8 or 9 other adult family members. I had also seen other people trying to convince the airlines that they needed extra time to board with their 13 year old son. As for people complaining, one of the most vocal critics was my own father, he would rant and rave about how unfair it was that family with small kids was boarding before. He would cause a scene loudly asking why he showed up 2 hours early so he could be up front in the line and still these families are boarding before him (my dad has never traveled with either of my young daughters). Seriously, my father gets more flustered talking about the Southwest family boarding policy than he does talking about politics.

Although the old policy seemed very unfair, what ultimately would happen is all the people traveling with small crying noisy children would all group together at the front of the plane and everyone else toward the back. Ultimately the families with the yelling noisy bothersome kids would be somewhat separated from the rest of the adult business traveler passengers. With the new policy we were forced in amongst a number of business travelers who didn’t seem delighted about my screaming 18 month old daughter of my chair kicking 4 year old daughter (if it wasn’t a 7 AM flight I would have offered to buy everyone around us drinks).

We all survived the flight, and we all got to sit together. However I no longer recommend Southwest as the only airlines to fly when traveling with children, and I will definitely investigate other options for flying with children in the future. Southwest falls to the position of all other airlines for me now, whoever has the cheapest ticket or the only direct flight gets my business.

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