Image: Family boarding on Southwest Airlines
Thao Nguyen  /  AP
The Flanagan family boards a flight during the designated family boarding time in San Antonio, where Southwest airlines has been testing new boarding procedures.
updated 8/7/2007 2:40:52 PM ET 2007-08-07T18:40:52

Families with young children are usually invited to board their flights first, along with other special needs passengers.

But what if families with children weren't among the first to board? Might the process go more smoothly?

While it might sound counterintuitive, it's something Southwest Airlines has been experimenting with flights from San Antonio.

"The major goal is to try to give a better customer experience for boarding," said Susie Boersma, manager for airport performance improvement.

The airline's effort to improve the boarding process comes at a time when the entire airline industry is struggling with increased delays, cancellations and passenger complaints about deterioriations in service. Several high-profile incidents in the past year have involved traveling families, most recently a woman who was escorted off a plane because her toddler kept saying "Bye-bye plane!"

Southwest, a Dallas-based discount carrier, is famous for its unassigned seating, which some have dubbed the "cattle call."

In each of the scenarios the airline has been trying, families were invited to board after the "A" group. Passengers in the "A" group are typically those who arrive early or who checked in online beforehand.

In one scenario, a few rows of seats were set aside on the plane for flight attendants to use if a family couldn't find seats together. In the other scenario, no seats were reserved.

In either case, families who had already obtained an "A" pass could sidestep the experiment of boarding later and board with the "A" group if they wanted to.

But some traveling families said they'd be happy to give up the privilege of boarding first, if it made the process easier.

"I'd be willing to go after the 'A' group," said Christine Smith, 34, who traveled on a test flight from San Antonio to Dallas last week with her 6-year-old son, Tanner.

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Aimee Flanagan, 34, who was on Smith's flight with her husband and three children, said she wouldn't mind boarding after the "A" group, because it might reduce the pressure to get settled while a long and impatient line of people wait behind her.

When families board first, "there's no time to get situated. You have to be in the aisles," she said. "And the kids are over here and you still haven't figured out where to sit."

The day after her test flight, Flanagan said that boarding after the "A" group worked out just fine. Fewer seats were available, but her family was still able to sit together. She still felt the pressure to get seated quickly, though, as others boarded after her.

Southwest officials stress that they are not trying to separate business travelers from families. But some passengers say that's exactly what they'd like to see.

"If you have X amount of families, however many people who are in families, have X seats sectioned off," said Flanagan. She said doing that would keep everyone happy, including all the annoyed travelers she's seen giving families dirty looks.

It's also possible that Southwest may not change anything and continue to pre-board as usual, the company said.

Dallas-area architects Dan Henke and Fred Cawyer, who travel Southwest once or twice a month, are happy to have family pre-boarding continue as usual, even if that means a longer wait and fewer available seats. "I think I like letting them board first," Henke said. "Then I don't have to sit next to them."

They'd also support separate sections for business and family passengers.

"These flights are so short, I can tolerate it," Cawyer said of sitting next to a crying child for the less-than-one-hour hop from San Antonio to Dallas. "If it's going to Pittsburgh, shoot me."

In addition to the "Bye-bye plane!" case, other incidents involving families in the past year include a family taken off a flight when their child threw a tantrum and refused to wear a seat belt, and protests held nationwide in support of a nursing mother who was ordered off a plane because she wouldn't cover up.

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