updated 7/26/2007 6:50:13 PM ET 2007-07-26T22:50:13

Can airlines do a better job of accommodating families?

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That’s the question Southwest Airlines is asking by experimenting with various ways to board and seat traveling families.

“We began testing about two weeks ago on all flights departing from San Antonio,” Linda Rutherford, the airline’s vice president of public relations, said Thursday. “We are testing several different ways to conduct family boarding.”

Options being considered include “having designated rows for family seating; having them board with no onboard designated area, and pre-boarding them as we would normally,” Rutherford said. She said the experiments would continue for a few weeks, and that it was too early to draw conclusions.

Rutherford added that Southwest has an open seating policy in which passengers are not assigned seats in advance, so the family boarding experiments are designed to “help us ensure families may be seated together.” She said the approach is not intended to segregate families from business travelers.

Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said an airline that wanted to seat families in a separate area would not need FAA approval. “It is not a safety issue so the FAA would have nothing to do with it,” she said.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade organization for U.S. airlines, said the ATA had no position on it.

A recent online Maritz survey found 73 percent of respondents said they would like to see family sections on airplanes.

The Southwest experiment follows several high-profile incidents involving passengers with children, including Kate Penland, who said she was forced to disembark because her toddler was saying “Bye-bye plane!” In another instance, the Transportation Security Administration took the unusual step of posting a video on its Web site that appeared to show a mother dumping the contents of her child’s sippy cup on an airport floor after security officials said she couldn’t bring the liquid with her. Earlier this year, a family was taken off an AirTran flight when their child threw a tantrum and refused to wear a seatbelt. Last year, protests were held nationwide in support of a nursing mother who was ordered off a plane because she refused to cover up.

Many passengers are surprisingly passionate about issues associated with children on airplanes. Some complain about unruly children and crying babies; others say passengers and even flight attendants are sometimes needlessly hostile to families traveling under difficult circumstances.

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