Southwest Airlines is trying an experiment to tweak the way passengers board its flights – but don’t worry the carrier’s (at times) polarizing open seating practice isn’t going away.
Instead, the airline is testing a way for families traveling with children six and younger to board together, and sit together, more easily.
“Our Innovation Team is reviewing various passenger movement concepts at select gates at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, including family boarding, which is one of many processes being assessed as we look to efficiently and quickly get passengers to their final destinations,” a Southwest spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
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Southwest emphasized that trials like this one “are not an indication of a forthcoming policy change” but are just part of how the airline works to stay as efficient as possible.
Southwest’s new family boarding trial
Under the trial, certain Southwest flights leaving from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will allow families with children six and younger to board after preboarding and before the general boarding process (by lettered group and boarding position) begins.
Families that take advantage of the early boarding opportunity will be asked to choose seats behind the exit row, according to the airline.
The trial will continue in phases through Feb. 2023.
How does Southwest boarding work?
Southwest’s usual boarding process can be a little confusing for the uninitiated. The airline first offers pre-boarding for people who need extra time getting onto the aircraft. Under the trial on certain flights in Atlanta, families with children under the age of six would board after that.
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All other passengers are assigned a group (A, B or C) and a boarding position within that group (numbered 1-60). Passengers line up to board by group and position, and can choose any available seat once they are on the plane.
Southwest has a video explaining the process for travelers who aren’t used to their method.
Do families board together on other airlines?
Because most airlines assign seats ahead of their flights, families on other airlines can typically board together if they selected adjoining seats in advance.
However, many last-minute ticket purchases or basic economy fares inadvertently see families split up onboard, which can mean boarding separately as well. And, many airlines require passengers that don’t have frequent flyer status to pay to select their seats when they book.
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Over the summer, the Department of Transportation issued a notice that encouraged airlines to do everything in their power to seat families together free of charge.