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Airline to end policy of letting families board first

September 19, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Southwest Airlines has a new way of getting children on a plane -- by no longer putting them first.

As of Oct. 2, the airline will end its long-standing policy of allowing people with young children to board ahead of most other passengers, Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said Tuesday.

Although the Dallas-based airline has been looking for ways to boost revenue, the push behind Southwest's policy change appears to have more in common with that age-old play-group complaint: No fair.

"We certainly have had customers express their concerns when they see 20 or so people pre-boarding," Harbin said. "This levels the playing field."

Throughout its 36-year history, Southwest has built an image of the populist airline with all-coach cabins and no reserved seats.

"This change is in line with their basic policy of first come, first served," said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and coauthor of an annual study of airline quality. "It's a cattle call, and that's what they built the airline around."

Disabled passengers will still be allowed to pre-board, followed by Southwest's traditional three groups of boarders: A, B and C.

Children under 5, and those traveling with them, won't be stripped entirely of privilege. If they and their entourage don't get boarding passes in time to be part of group A, they'll be allowed to board right after that group, before B and C.

This is to ensure that passengers with small children will find seats together. "That's what's paramount to those traveling with a child," Harbin said.

The new system was tested over the last several months at Southwest's gates at San Antonio International Airport. Harbin said some families complained, mostly because they hadn't been given advance warning.

But Andy Obert, a Carrollton, Texas, account executive who travels with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, said families might seek out more friendly skies.

"I could see it costing them business if all other things are equal," Obert told Bloomberg News. "It's not easy to travel with two kids, especially when it's just one parent."

Headley said the move could be aimed at pleasing business travelers, who are more likely to buy last-minute, higher-priced tickets.

"They tend to earn more revenue than a kid in a seat," he said.

Seeing the children-first policy end will give these business travelers a measure of satisfaction.

"You get there and stand in line early," he said, "then in comes a mom at the last minute with all the kids and they breeze right onto the airplane."

Seeing those kids scrambling into the airplane with the rest of the cattle call will be a welcome sight, Headley said.

"I think business travelers will be saying, 'It's about damn time.' "

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david.colker@latimes.com

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