United Airlines (UAL) has decided that families with small children can no longer board its airplanes early.
The policy, apparently adopted last month, was only announced last week. According to the airline, the objective here is "to simplify the boarding process and to reduce the overall number of boarding groups." But chances are that United's primary accomplishment here will be to reduce by one the number of airlines that families with small children are willing to fly.
In fact, a lot of airlines have been tightening up their family friendly policies lately. But most airlines -- including Alaska Airlines, Delta (DAL), JetBlue (JBLU), Southwest (LUV), and US Airways (LCC) -- still permit some form of early boarding for families. ("Early boarding" might mean "before most other passengers board" or "before all passengers board.") Even American Airlines, while it claims no specific family preboarding policy, balks at eliminating the privilege entirely and says its gate agents "allow those families who want extra time to preboard" to do so "after first class."
However you define "early boarding," it means precious minutes during which frazzled parents can get the strollers stowed and the kids safely out from underfoot of the other passengers. But the process can be hit or miss. To some extent, you're dependent on the good nature of the gate attendant, the quality of the PA equipment, and your ability to be quick on your feet (and strollers) to take advantage of the service.
What we now have is a patchwork quilt of policies among the various airlines. What's more, with rare exceptions, trying to find a straightforward policy on the airline's website can be like looking for a black snark in a dark room at midnight. So to get the straight skinny, we quizzed the airlines themselves to see where things stand.
And we're laying it out here for you here and now:
Families Board Before Everyone Else
Families Board After First Class, Frequent Fliers, Etc., But Before General Boarding
"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"
The Airline Says:
"We provide pre-boarding for those requiring assistance and families traveling with children under the age of two. The gate agent will make an announcement for pre-boarding."
Delta Air Lines
"Delta also thinks your baby is first class! If you've got babies or toddlers in tow, take advantage of pre-boarding. Just before first class is called, the gate agent will announce pre-boarding."
"JetBlue continues to offer boarding for families traveling with children under the age of two prior to general boarding. We ... know that families traveling with small children may have their hands full and need extra time to get settled in on their flights."
"An adult traveling with a child four years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the 'A' group has boarded and before the 'B' group begins boarding."
"We do have family boarding. It comes after zone 2 but before zones 3 to 5."
"American does not have a defined policy, but we allow those families who want extra time to pre-board after first class. However, the best option for families is to purchase Group 1 boarding for $10."
"We made the changes to simplify the boarding process and to reduce overall the number of boarding groups."
This, once again, is where the airlines say their policies stand as of today. But as United Airlines has demonstrated, policies are subject to change -- and even when unchanged, we all know how a single grumpy gate attendant or unintelligible airport PA station can wreak havoc on the boarding process.
So tell us: Now that you know what the policies are supposed to be, what are you seeing on the ground, on the front lines at the airport? Who's measuring up, and who's not?
Scroll down to the comments section below and fire away.
Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southwest Airlines.