Last updated: 03:45 PM ET, Fri March 25 2016

Families In Flight

A look at the boarding challenges families face when flying.

Vacation Agent | Features & Advice | Rich Thomaselli

Families In Flight

The family that flies together doesn’t necessarily stay together – at least not on the aircraft itself.

These days, families are facing challenges from the airlines when they travel together, everything from the boarding policies in terms of traveling with small children to the location of their actual seats on the plane.

That’s why the news from United Airlines earlier this year was so welcome in the parenting community. United reversed its 2012 policy of not allowing families to board early.  Families with children ages two and under will now be able to board right after passengers with disabilities and uniformed military members – and before those with frequent flier status.  “Based on the feedback we think it's the right thing to do,” says Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman.

Nonetheless, it’s not the same across the board at all airlines, nor is it a courtesy the way it used to be.

Seat selection, meanwhile, has been a sore point for some families, who are not always able to sit together unless they pay for the privilege of seat selection.  The issue received a fair amount of media attention last year after a father flying Delta Air Lines posted on the “Sword and the Script” blog that he had to pay $88 to get a seat assignment next to his four-year-old.

There are, however, a few things parents and travel agents can do to combat this issue beyond springing for the seat selection fee.

They can book the seats and religiously check back.  There are numerous instances where passengers pay for and book seats, and either upgrade themselves later in the process or the airline upgrades frequent fliers.

If the option to spring for the seat selection fee is not available, look at the seat maps when purchasing seats during the booking process and try to get all aisle seats.  At least this way family members can be close to each other and parents can have easier access to their children.

Lastly, consider talking to the gate agent before boarding to see if there’s anything he or she might be able to do.    

Of course, if Congress has its way this issue might be a moot point.  As part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill heading to a vote later this year, two members of the House of Representatives introduced the Families Flying Together Act, which would require the U.S. Department of Transportation “to direct each airline carrier to notify passengers traveling with minors if seats are not available together at the initial booking stage and for each carrier to establish a policy to ensure, to the extent practicable, that a family is seated together during [the] flight.”

Fortunately, at least for now, children do not need passports to fly domestically.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last month that Real ID-compliant identification, such as a passport or a driver’s license from a Real ID-compliant state, will not be required to fly domestically until 2018.

Children under 18 traveling on a domestic flight do not need to show identification or documentation unless they are under 14 days old – and therefore need a physician’s letter – or are traveling as a lap child, in which case proof of age might be required by the respective airline.

READ MORE: 10 Rules for Flying With Small Children

“Right now, no individual needs to adjust travel plans, or rush out to get a new driver’s license or a passport for domestic air travel,” says DHS Secretary Jeh C. Johnson.  “Until January 22, 2018, residents of all states will still be able to use a state-issued driver’s license or identification card for domestic air travel.  Passengers can also continue to use any of the various other forms of identification accepted by TSA [such as a Passport or Passport Card, Global Entry card, U.S. military ID, airline or airport-issued ID, or federally recognized tribalissued photo ID].”

Boarding Policies for Families

Air Canada:  Travelers with children customers under 6 can board early, ahead of most customers.  They are grouped ahead of Zone 3 (out of five zones) on mainline rouge flights and before Zones 3 and 4 on regional flights.

Alaska Airlines:  Families with children under 2, members of the military and those who need special services board before first-class and elite customers and those who purchased preferred seating.

Allegiant Air:  Families who want to board before general boarding can purchase an optional priority access upgrade for an $4-$12 per person, per segment.

American Airlines:  Families with children can pre-board upon request, prior to the general boarding process.

Delta Air Lines:  Families traveling with children under 2 can board before first-class passengers and those with elite status.

Frontier Airlines:  Families with children 3 and younger board after elite members and those who paid for extra legroom but before the rest of the plane. 

Hawaiian Airlines:  Families with children under 2 can pre-board before first-class and elite-level passengers.

JetBlue:  Families with children under 2 can pre-board after elite passengers, those with premium seats and active -duty military but before general boarding.

Southwest Airlines:  An adult traveling with a child 6 or younger may board during Family Boarding after the “A” group and before the “B” group.

Spirit Airlines:  Spirit operates a four-zone loading process.  Zone One is for people who paid to board first or who have purchased a carry-on bag.  Families with small children (no age specification) board in Zone Two.

Sun Country Airlines:  Families with small children can board early, along with active and inactive military members.

United Airlines:  Families with children 2 and under can pre-board after people with disabilities, Global Services passengers and active-duty military in uniform, but before premier-level passengers.


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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the March 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.