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Baby, say bye-bye to airline perk

I stood at the airport gate a few weekends ago, baby propped on one hip and baggage slung over the other shoulder, waiting for our call to board.

"We'll start the boarding process now with our first-class customers," the attendant announced.

Kaitlyn clung to me quietly, contentedly sucking her fingers and watching the bustle of business travelers and vacationing families.

"… And now we'd like to welcome our advantage members," the attendant continued.

I figured we'd be next. I'm traveling with a small child. We need a little extra time to get settled. We get to preboard, right?

Not necessarily. Not anymore.

As the regular boarding groups filed ahead of me (my boarding pass said Group 5), I realized this longtime perk has gone the way of free headsets and in-flight meals. And while it hasn't made the same headlines as baggage fees and fuel surcharges, more airlines are dropping the preboarding call for families with small children.

Southwest Airlines, once lauded for its families-first boarding policy, nixed the practice last October amid complaints from the other passengers elbowing their way to the front of the cattle call.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have quietly phased out the preboarding call for families with small children, although gate attendants have the discretion to let you and your munchkins board early, if you ask.

United Airlines has dropped the practice altogether.

This makes life a little trickier for those of us handling a baby and a bag — let alone those poor souls who are lugging around a car seat for their toddler and need a moment to strap everything in.

Kaitlyn, who's a little under a year and a little over 15 pounds, traveled quite nicely on my lap, but I still needed a minute to get her situated with her blanket, toys and snacks and stow our bag (not an easy task in a cramped airplane with a child in hand).

I figure it's better for me to take that moment while everyone else is still comfortably seated at the gate instead of standing behind me, crammed in that claustrophobic center aisle, holding all of their luggage.

But the airlines make a good case for efficiency. They have done all kinds of studies to figure out the fastest way to get everyone on board and into the sky. Delta's Song airlines was the guinea pig several years ago for all kinds of service experiments, and their findings mirror the way most airlines board now: back to front, window to aisle seats.

"If you're bringing on people who need assistance — younger kids — all at once, you potentially create a bottleneck on the front end, as opposed to randomly dispersing them based on where people are sitting in the aircraft," explained Delta spokesman Anthony Black. "The best process is to board the aircraft normally."

And doing so, he said, saves an average of 10 to 12 minutes over allowing families to preboard.

Far be it for me to argue with the cold, hard data.

My last trip was on American Airlines, and when I inquired on the last leg about early boarding, the attendants graciously gave me the go-ahead. But now that I know the stats, I feel a little guilty holding up the show.

For our next trip — this time with my husband, Wayne, and our toddler Toby in tow — we'll travel smarter. We bought a compact, FAA-approved harness for Toby to use with the airplane seat belt, so we won't have to lug around his giant car seat.

And we'll board with everyone else.

We'll have to.

We'll be on United.

Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at bgrumet@sptimes.com.

Baby, say bye-bye to airline perk 08/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2008 8:55am]
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