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Air travel for eight: It's no breeze

Just past 3 o'clock on a recent afternoon, my family and I stride into Tampa International Airport, looking like the North Pole expedition crew of Commander Robert E. Peary, with a touch of the Clark Griswold clan from some National Lampoon vacation movie.

Maybe we should have chartered our own plane.

Weighed down with bulky winter coats and enough suitcases and carry-ons to last through June, our caravan _ two tense parents, five happy kids from 17 to 3 and one sleeping infant _ is about to venture into all new territory.

The first Scheiber airline trip as a party of eight.

Let me say that we are old pros at long-distance drives, traveling many times through the night in vans that have gone from mini to maxi to airport-limo size as our family has expanded. We've stopped for gas at South of the Border on I-95 so many times we could have our own gold-plated pump.

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But flying is the only way we could make it to an 80th-birthday bash for my parents, 1,000 miles north outside Washington, D.C.

In the best of times, I have never relished the idea of coping with crowded airports and jetliners as one big family. Now I am back with a news flash: Even if you're up to your ears with young kids, don't assume you'll get much help from all airlines these days amid the intense security and long waits.

On this day at TIA, the thought of one of our 18-hour, straight-through drives to D.C. is starting to look like a joyride.

3:15: Arrive at United Airlines check-in for 5:50 p.m. flight to Dulles International. Heeding advice to show up two to three hours before departure, we lug our nine pieces of luggage to the counter with more than 2{ hours to spare.

A line already has formed in one of those snaking Disney configurations. For 45 minutes, we inch forward patiently behind about 30 passengers _ the older three girls reading books, the younger two playing with dolls, the baby boy snoozing. Why can't it ever be this calm at home?

The only moment of concern comes when my wife starts talking about the blanket she has knitted for my parents. "Where's the afghan? Have you seen the afghan?" she exclaims. Could we try harder to make a scene? I picture security swooping in to pull us all out of line for questioning, and interject, "Oh, you mean that blue blanket you made _ it's in the shopping bag here."

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4:15. Starting to get attention as a novelty act. Passengers behind us point and smile at the baby, at the younger children playing, at the teeming legions that form my family.

4:30: Finally reach the front of the line. And naturally, everything inexplicably stops.

4:31: Passengers at the counter apparently are engaged in a discussion of aviation history with the only two United agents on duty (one having left as the line increased). Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. No movement. The 6- and 3-year-olds are sprawled on the carpet; baby is getting fidgety. Maybe if he starts screaming, they'll rush us through.

4:35: Watch in amazement as a short, elderly woman calmly leaves her spot far behind us and positions herself 3 feet in front of us to become next in line. Oh well. We're used to childish behavior from little kids _ and now little old ladies.

4:47: Our turn at last. But as I step forward, a supervisor announces to the increasingly antsy throng, "We're gonna just take Chicago passengers _ who's going to Chicago?"

A dozen people behind us, all booked on a flight leaving some 30 minutes before us, raise their hands. The airlines tell us to come two to three hours early, and what are the consequences if you don't? Expedited check-in!

Suddenly it seems we may wind up late in a line we've been in for 90 minutes and at the very front of for 15. "This is so unfair," says one of my older daughters, as a handful of Chicago passengers leapfrog past us.

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4:59 p.m.: One of two harried agents says without looking up: "Next."

Sensing an opening, I call out: "Do you mean next as in next passenger, or next Chicago passenger?"

"Doesn't matter to me," she says.

I grab our suitcases, stumble to the counter and thrust tickets forward with a crazed grin. Chicago people behind us _ some of the same ones who'd smiled so approvingly an hour before _ begin turning on us like vultures. "Can you believe them? Just because there are so many of them," one of them says. From adorable big family to evil big family just like that.

5:10: Pass through the metal detectors at airside. The only hitch: My fashion-conscious 17-year-old sets off the alarm with her metal-studded belt, triggering a full-scale, 13-minute inspection _ at separate tables _ of belt, platform heels and backpack filled with school books. Belt will get packed on return trip, or no more trips to the mall this year.

And so it goes. We race to our gate, where I hold our seat assignments for Rows 15 and 16 and wait for the one consolation in this mess, that reassuring preboarding announcement _ you know, families with small children can get on first.

The gate agent, however, begins by calling first-class passengers. So little kids follow first class _ no problem. Then she speaks again. "All rows 20 and higher may now board."

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Hey, what about the little kids? Confused, I quickly herd us into the line. When I reach the agent _ loaded down with kids and coats and cameras and carry bags _ my appeal is ready. "I didn't hear you ask for families with young kids to board, and we have six kids here, and three of them are only. . . ."

"Sir, we don't preboard children _ you'll have to step out of line and wait until you're called," she says in the firm, somewhat icy tone one doesn't question in times of heightened airport security.

We eventually squeeze on board, have an uneventful flight to Dulles and a great birthday celebration with my parents and relatives. On the return trip, not taking any chances, we leave for Dulles at 5:30 a.m. for a 9:25 a.m. flight home. Clearing the airport's elaborate and impressive security checkpoints, we are the first to arrive at the gate at 7:15 a.m.

I plunk us all down in the seats closest to the gate. Preboarding is out, but I'm determined to get us in line as soon as Rows 20 and 21 are called.

First-class passengers again get the first call. A long line forms instantly, snaking around the waiting area. What, is this some kind of new all-first-class flight? A dozen, then two dozen passengers walk right past us onto the plane. The parade continues, and I catch a glimpse of a Row 22 stub.

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"Excuse me," I interrupt the agent. "You never called any other rows _ are you boarding all rows?"

"Yes, all rows," she answers blandly, proceeding to make that announcement over the intercom.

Another cruel blow. We are now on course to be the first people at the gate by 20 minutes and the last to get on the plane. But not if I can help it. Instantly, I alert my wife and kids to grab their coats and bags and get set for action.

Clutching the baby, I become Marshall Faulk, hustling with my blockers into a hole in the line a few yards to our left, unconcerned with whom I cut off.

"That was so rude," I hear somebody say.

This time, it isn't anyone from Chicago. It's my wife. "Aw, don't worry," says the man behind her. "You all are a big family _ you should get on first."

Please, give that guy some bonus miles and a preboarding pass.

Just past 3 o'clock on a recent afternoon, my family and I stride into Tampa International Airport, looking like the North Pole expedition crew of Commander Robert E. Peary, with a touch of the Clark Griswold clan from some National Lampoon vacation movie.

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