Friday, October 16, 2015

On My Mind: Southwest Airlines Family Boarding

I'm still in the middle of blogging about our recent trip to New York City, but something has been on my mind.

For those that fly Southwest Airlines, you probably know that Southwest does not have assigned seats. When you check in for your flight 24 hours in advance, you are assigned a boarding number, and when you board you may choose any available seat. If you want a better chance of boarding the plane earlier and getting a potentially better seat, you can buy EarlyBird check-in, which automatically checks you in 36 hours in advance.

Southwest allows families with children 4 and under to board during Family Boarding time, which is between Groups A and B. By the time families board, there are usually 60 passengers already on board from the A boarding group and many times there are additional passengers that were already on board from the connecting flight. My family has used Family Boarding for the past several years, and we've never had an issue finding seats together near the back of the plane.

This summer, Southwest tested different age limits for Family Boarding, including up to ages 6, 8 and 11. I read about it in several articles and blogs, like this one. The challenge with limiting the kids to ages 4 and under is that no parent would want their 5- or 6-year old sitting next to a stranger out of sight. And probably no stranger wants to sit next to a young child. A child older than age 4 probably still needs help finding the bathroom on the plane, opening snacks, putting on an oxygen mask in the event of an emergency, etc. Flight attendants frequently ask people to switch seats to accommodate a family sitting together, but that takes time and delays take-off. When I flew on Southwest by myself earlier this year, I happily moved my seat three times to accommodate families. A kind flight attendant offered me a free drink for my trouble.

My youngest child turned 5 years old four days before our trip. Since the official Southwest Family Boarding policy states that we are no longer eligible, we checked in for our trip exactly 24 hours in advance. Because we purchased our tickets using points, each of us had a different reservation number to key in, and we wound up with boarding numbers in the mid-B group.

When boarding started, the gate attendant announced that Family Boarding was for ages 5 and under (not 4 and under). So we happily boarded at that time and sat in rows at the back of the plane.

For our return trip, we tried to do online check-in 24 hours ahead of time. But unfortunately, Southwest experienced a big systems glitch that day and we couldn't check in. By the time we were able to check in later that evening, we were in the C boarding group.

We decided to board with Family Boarding again, and here is what happened: nothing. The family ahead of us had two kids, the youngest appeared to be about 7. The two families behind us also had older kids that appeared to be 8 or 9. We proceeded to the back of the plane as usual.

In a few months, we will be flying on Southwest to go on a cruise. We won't have access to a computer or the internet 24 hours before our flight home, so we will have to get our boarding numbers at the airport a few hours before our flight or pay the extra $12.50 per person for the EarlyBird check-in before our trip ($125 round-trip for my family). I decided to email Southwest to ask if they will be changing the eligible ages for Family Boarding based on the summer test, or if not, do I need to pay the extra money to guarantee a seat with my daughter (and probably my 7-year-old son as well).

At first I got the standard automatic response that someone would review my email and respond within 48 hours. But then, to my surprise, Southwest actually called me at home.

I learned that the official Family Boarding policy is still for kids ages 4 and under, BUT the gate agents do not "card" any kids. Hint hint. And regardless of when we board, a flight attendant will work to relocate passengers so that kids are not separated from parents.

Based on that information, I plan to utilize Family Boarding for the next 1 or 2 years while my youngest still requires parent supervision and as long as Southwest seems to be unofficially supportive of it. But I'm curious what other families with 5-6-year-olds do? Would you allow your child that age to sit by himself/herself? Do you pay the extra money for EarlyBird check-in for peace of mind? Or will you use Family Boarding? Have you ever moved your seat to accommodate a family?


  1. Our solution to this is for 1 adult to purchase the earlybird and the other adult and kids to just check in as soon as we can and hope for the best. The first adult gets on, goes to the back, and warns people if they try to sit next to them that some kids are traveling with them (and still in the lobby with Dad to keep the craziness down) and they probably don't want to sit there. We've never had an issue doing this and most are glad to not have the crying kids stuck on the plane while everyone else boards.