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Family-only sections on planes? Don’t bet on it

Do you think airplanes should have a separate section for families? If you do, you’re not alone. Consider: 730 of the 1,000 travelers who recently took an online survey designed by the folks at Maritz Research thought so too.
Duane Hoffmann /

Do you think airplanes should have a separate section for families?

If you do, you’re not alone. Consider: 730 of the 1,000 travelers who recently took an online survey designed by the folks at Maritz Research thought so too.

And it’s not just people who hate flying near kids who are in favor of clustering families together on airplanes. Plenty of parents and grandparents with kids in tow say they’d love that arrangement as well.

For example, in a response to a recent Well-Mannered Traveler column, Megan Stackhouse from Virginia wrote to say: “As a mother of four ... and a veteran of many flights with all in tow at various ages and stages, I have to say that a family-friendly section on a plane would be a welcome addition ... When we had toddlers, we got so tired of the grumpy looks and unkind comments from people who either never had kids or who forgot that they were once kids themselves. Keeping a baby, toddler or preschooler happy and quiet for hours and confined in a cramped space is unbelievably STRESSFUL. Having a section for families where we could all relax knowing we didn't have others judging our parenting skills but rather exchanging sympathetic looks would be so refreshing. We might have traveled even more ... if the flights had been so accommodating.”

Stackhouse and others may have gotten their hopes raised — and then dashed — last week when an AP story about Southwest Airlines got headlined in various news outlets as a story about the airline “.”

But “that’s not true,” says Southwest spokesperson Brandy King. She explains that as part of an overall review of boarding procedures, the airline best-known for its “first-come, first-seated” policy is taking a look at how it accommodates families. “The tests being conducted at San Antonio International Airport right now are focusing on how we board families, not how we group them on board.”

Currently, Southwest offers open seating to passengers who first secure a boarding pass for one of three groups (A, B, or C) and then stand in line at the airport to board with their lettered group. Families with small children (and anyone needing special assistance) have been allowed to board early, before passengers in Group A. In the San Antonio tests, says King, one scenario has families boarding after the passengers needing special assistance and after, not before, passengers with boarding passes in Group A.

“Some scenarios also had the flight attendants reserving a few rows for families” in case there weren’t enough seats for a family to be seated together after everyone in Group A has boarded,” says King, “but the goal was not to create a special section just for families.”

King says the results of these tests aren’t yet in, “but in general, families are savvy travelers and many of them end up in Group A anyway.” And she says no one has to fret just yet about any changes going into effect without warning. The family boarding tests are just one aspect of Southwest’s overall review of its boarding procedures and any policy changes won’t be announced or put into effect until sometime in 2008.

In the meantime, let’s imagine for a moment what a flight might be like if families with kids were all seated in one area.

Surely that section would be by the bathrooms. But would it be a free-for-all with goldfish crackers flying back and forth across the aisles? Would kicking the seat in front of you be fine and dandy as long as you checked to see if there was another kid sitting there? Would the refreshments be milk and cookies or apple juice and grapes instead of soda and pretzels? Would there be enforced nap time? And would the video monitors play only cartoons and PG-rated films?

Actually, it sounds like a lot of fun to me. Certainly more fun than my last flight, when I was (mistakenly, I’m sure) seated in the whiny section, which was located just a few rows in front of the sneezing-and-wheezing travelers section and near the section for those who insist their oversized suitcases should be able to fit into the overhead bins.

But will we see special sections for families on airplanes anytime soon? Don’t hold your breath. While some airports and even a few airline club lounges currently have separate play areas and/or special sections for kids and families, airlines aren’t likely to go that route. But Ken Riley from Missouri doesn’t think that should be necessary. In an e-mail he sent to the Well-Mannered Traveler about flying with kids he wrote: “ ... Since when did people have the right to expect children to always behave? I'm a 40-year-old guy that has one child but has traveled on planes and sat in restaurants with many children and ... I'm sick and tired of the belly-aching done by people who forget what it's like to be a kid or to have kids.”

Given the stresses of modern travel, it probably is easy to forget what it’s like to be a kid or to take a kid on an airplane. So here are a few boiled-down clip-and-save basics to help families prepare for tantrum-free plane flights:

Make sure everyone gets a good night sleep: Put cranky adults and cranky kids in cramped quarters for hours at a time and you’re just asking for trouble.

Pack for battle: It’s you against them. And by “them” I mean the airlines, the kids, other passengers — or all of the above. Arm yourself with plenty of patience and bring an FAA-approved car seat, a change of clothes (for you and your kids), lots of healthy snacks and some special surprise treats you can magically produce to either reward good behavior or to use as distraction in a meltdown or other kid emergency.

Bring entertainment: Toys (new ones and reassuring old favorites), books, crayons, stickers and an MP3 player or a portable DVD-player with extra headphones and batteries.

Consider boarding last: Like Southwest, most airlines offer early boarding to families with small children. But think about it: it’s hard enough for kids to sit still for hours on a plane. Early boarding just starts the “don’t fidget” clock ticking that much earlier. Try spending more time out in the gate area and take your seats at the tail end of the boarding process. If you’re traveling solo with kids, this works best if you travel light. But if there’s more than one adult in your group, send one person aboard with all the “stuff” during the regular boarding process and let the tote-free parent board later with the kids.

Of course, if airlines ever do set aside special sections just for families, and include some of the activities I’ve imagined above, there may be a whole new set of problems we’ll have to tackle: it may become just too much fun to fly.