United Airlines finally puts children first

By | February 5th, 2016

The airline boarding process, for want of a more family-friendly word, stinks. But on Feb. 15, it will stink a little less for families.

That’s when United Airlines’ new policy kicks in allowing families with children under age two to board ahead of everyone but passengers with disabilities and military passengers in uniform. They’ll be able to get on before Global Services members and before Group One, which is other top elites and first-class travelers.

This isn’t because the airline suddenly loves children, but because United realizes that they can slow up the boarding process.

Airlines used to let families board first for free, but then the idea of selling boarding priority caught on. Now, most airlines let passengers with young children board, if not first, at least in the earlier groups. However, since 2012, United Airlines has been a holdout: Families board with their assigned groups unless they pay more.

But the situation has worsened with charges for checked bags. And the uncertain wait time for those checked bags means that even the offer of a free checked bag at the gate doesn’t stop people from wanting to carry everything on board with them.

The hope is that with families boarding first they can gate check their strollers, stow their car seats and assorted other stuff, and then get out of the way. And the policy may well work.

Several concerns come to mind:

  • How will United police who is and isn’t under two? (We’ve all seen the “lap babies” who look almost old enough to be exit-row qualified.)
  • How many people can board along with babies and toddlers?
  • Will flight attendants make sure the families only use the overhead bins above their seats?
  • And what happens when families get there in the middle of the boarding process — will they be able to jump to the front of the line, or will they have to wait with other travelers?
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As with many other airline policies, the devil is always in the details.

I remember a Pan Am flight from Miami to Paris almost 30 years ago where an agent called pre-boarding for those who needed special assistance, and about 200 people ran to the gate.

And then there’s the dreaded seat swap request. Not that I’m anti-children, but with families on board in advance, it increases the opportunity for them to wait in a row where only one of them is booked, with some variation of, “I know these aren’t all our seats, but would you give them to us in exchange for our middle seats in back?”

Since United is the last major carrier to make the swap back to families first, no doubt these and other issues will get worked out. And most people do try to be considerate of their fellow passengers.

But stay tuned. One thing we’ve learned about the airline industry: Change is constant, and it is never easy.

Are you in favor of United's new children (almost) first policy?

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  • Rebecca

    I travel with children. My kids are 3 months and 16 months. And, inevitably, people with one 8 year old in their party jump in front of us for family boarding. The solution, imo, is actually very simple. If you have a car seat, you get on first. It takes quite a while to secure a car seat. I speak from experience. Otherwise, you board with everyone else. I’m also against lap babies. Kids need their own seat. Its dangerous and extremely rude to other passengers if a child doesn’t have their own seat.

  • technomage1

    So people who are paying less for their tickets as leisure travelers are not only going ahead of others who have paid more for the ticket but for priority boarding, but are now going to get the opportunity to occupy seats they’re not assigned to demand seat swaps? Because make no mistake, that’s exactly what is going to happen in most cases. They’re not going to wait for the person who paid extra for that choice forward aisle or window seat to show up and ask for the seat. They’re going to take the seat(s), settle in, fill the overhead bin with stuff, then make a fuss when the person who paid extra for that seat assignment shows up and asks them to move.

    I do have a choice of who to fly with, and as of right now, United is off my list.

  • Chris Johnson

    If it really does speed up the overall boarding process by boarding them first, if they are in the waiting area at the time to do it, then I’m all for it. Just as long as they don’t take my aisle seat that I selected ahead of time for a reason.
    Regarding the last question Chris asked about what happens if to families that show up in the middle of the boarding process, there’s a simple answer to that: they will have to wait with the other travelers. Allowing them to jump the line will defeat the whole purpose of this

  • It did say that United was the holdout, and now it’s joining the rest of the airlines. So which airline will you be flying?

  • technomage1

    I won’t be. I’ve had enough. I retire in a year. If I need to go somewhere, I’ll drive or take the train…or fly a foreign airline.

  • jim6555

    In other words, you are threatening to take business from United because you don’t like it’s new policy for family boarding. You have told us that you don’t fly domestically and use foreign carriers for international flights. Therefore, it’s all an empty threat since there is no business for you to take away.

  • MarkKelling

    I have not seen this on the other airlines I fly. Hawaiian allows families with SMALL children to board AFTER 1st class and other priority boarders. Southwest lets them board between group A and group B. None I have seen lets them board before everybody else.

  • MarkKelling

    I think a better thing for UA and all other airlines to do is insure that if you have a family booked on a flight they all get seats together without having to pay premium charges and cannot be split up for any reason. Foreign airlines do this, no reason why US based airlines cannot. This would eliminate the camping that is sure to happen when one member of the family gets assigned Economy + and the rest are in the back of the plane.

  • Travelnut

    Well, if they don’t charge a “sit together” or premium seating fee to families then they shouldn’t charge the fee at all.

    For sure, if I get to my seat that I chose carefully several months ago and someone is camped there, they will be leaving camp shortly. Unless I get cold hard cash.

  • Jeff W.

    Like pre-boarding for disabled passengers, this is a mixed blessing. While it does take longer for these groups to board and getting them (and their equipment, like strollers and car seats) take extra time, it is ripe for abuse. I suspect UA removed it because of the abuse.

    Hopefully, UA will be able to sort things out. It is easier to determine who is 2 and under as opposed to disabled, so maybe the abuse will not be as bad. I can fake a limp, can’t fake being 2, no matter how hard I try. :-)

    I think it is all part of UA’s change and putting the friendly back in the friendly skies. Took a flight last night and free snacks are back. Although sad that a free snack bag is now a perk, but got to take the little things. Let’s see how this all works out.

  • technomage1

    I guess I need to break it down Barney style. I currently fly rather frequently for work and leisure. For the next year, business and leisure trips I can and will cut. Once I retire, I will have the option to drive or take the train for any domestic leisure travel I do, and foreign carriers for trips overseas, which I do plan to still take. So yes, there is some teeth to that threat.

  • ctporter

    What a great idea for saying families with children sitting in car seats may board at this time (vs 2 yr olds) I have no idea how old most of the children are that are boarding early actually are, but they sure seem to me to be much much older than 2! I have noticed more often than not, that a mother with stroller, baby strapped on her front and misc diaper bags etc and sometimes even a little bit older child gets pushed out of the way by families with kids that are obviously in elementary school. Ive actually had to stop one family that was pushing forward from cutting off a woman that was in line with all her baby stuff.

  • Kerr

    If it is a long flight, it will require a lot of cash!

  • All this from a perceived slight that actually has yet to occur? Seems a bit extreme….

  • Rebecca

    That has literally happened to me every single flight. And they’re the type of people that saying something just makes it worse.

  • Travelnut

    There was a reality show years ago about Southwest Airlines. There were several instances on the show where someone was insisting their kid was under two when the kid clearly wasn’t. SW asked them to prove it with a birth certificate, which of course they didn’t have with them. Hilarity ensued.


    Delta boards them before everyone else except people needing extra assistance such as those in wheelchairs.

  • technomage1

    And…I just convinced my large international organization to move to online and satellite courses from in resident courses for 2/3 our our training requirements, a move that will save us several million a year, and made me look like a superstar for suggesting it. And the young folks who are the ones taking the classes, love the idea since it means less time on the road away from home, which we get a lot of anyway.

    This is the straw that broke the camels back for me.

  • That some people might get to board before you? Ok

    And I’m really surprised a large international organization hadn’t already moved to online courses and such YEARS ago. I haven’t traveled for training in years. People should have been fired for not suggesting it sooner! ;)

  • judyserienagy

    I think having little kids board first is the right thing to do, always has been. I’m a Group 1 and waiting for military people to board first has always been an honor. I remember when Continental started it, I was proud of them. I am happy that United is extending this courtesy to families. But I’m sad, because if they board first, I no longer get to smile at the darling little ones pulling their miniature rollaboard by themselves. Cracks me up every time.

  • judyserienagy

    I will be extra vigilant now to step up and block the morons trying to cut ahead of a family with little children. And of course you can’t say anything to them, if they had a brain they wouldn’t be doing it. Good for you, ctporter.

  • James Moninger

    At the risk of being politically incorrect, I have a problem with United boarding military members first, when they often AREN’T in uniform and often ARE accompanied by a number of family members. Without wanting to launch a debate about their “service,” is this a slippery slope? Could the next priority boarding group be police officers and fire fighters, border patrol agents, and others that, in their own ways, keep us safe? I believe United (and other carriers) should extend top boarding priority to passengers with full fare first and business class tickets, even if there are only a few.

  • judyserienagy

    Wow, I would have never thought of this, Techno. People would really do that? Are they doing it now? That would be SO annoying and surely make a mess with the boarding process. Of course, all it takes is a few encounters with people who want the seat they reserved and are unmoved by histronics and fuss, they just make a polite request and stand there silently while the offender moves … that would probably be the end of the seat-stealing games.

  • Daddydo

    I pay for my comfort. I pay a lot. I will probably be escorted off of the plane, but nobody except a military person, I will give up my seat in a second, will take my pre-paid seat assignment!

  • cahdot

    delta lets babies in coaches board first along with wheelchairs and “those thinking they need more time” even if they are 30 and look fine… then the premium -first class and diamond ..

  • cahdot

    and they let those with 10 year old get on first also or they do not stop them …

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