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New airline policies anger family fliers

As a mother, blogger and expatriate American living in the Netherlands, Monique Rubin is no stranger to the special challenges of family travel. Even so, she experienced a new twist in pre-boarding procedures when a United gate agent recently announced:

"We are now boarding those with special needs, and we here at United consider children your blessing, not a special need, so we ask that you board according to your boarding number."

Special needs or not, the incident, along with other industry developments, suggests that families getting ready to take off on their summer vacations may experience some bumps along the way.

The announcement Rubin heard was the result of United opting to discontinue the process of allowing families with small children to board before the general public, a procedure the airline had implemented earlier this year.

“What ended up happening is that we had more than a half-dozen different boarding groups,” said spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. “It actually caused more confusion than it resolved.”

Not surprisingly, the switch has generated plenty of controversy. According to a poll conducted by AirfareWatchdog.com after the United announcement, 61 percent of respondents approved of letting families board early, with 34 percent being opposed and 6 percent having no opinion.

Even more telling, perhaps, United’s move also prompted the launch of a petition — United Airlines: Keep Family Boarding — at Change.org. Initiated by Kaja Meade, a frequent flier and mother of a 9-month-old boy, the effort has garnered nearly 38,000 signatures since it went live on May 29.

“I think this policy loses sight of who the customer is,” said Meade. “There are already all sorts of ‘death by a 1,000 cuts’ when you travel and I feel this was an extreme step.”

Not necessarily, counters Johnson: “We’ll do what we’ve always done, which is if a man or woman walks up to an agent and says, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got two toddlers; can I get down the ramp a few minutes early?’ the agent will do what they can to make it happen.”

In the meantime, traveling families may face an added challenge this summer as airlines set aside more seats — typically windows, aisles and those in the front of the main cabin — for passengers willing to pay an additional fee. As non-fee seats fill up, families face the choice of paying an extra $25 to $59 per seat to be together or finding themselves scattered throughout the cabin.

The prospect of young children sitting next to strangers instead of their parents is a frightening proposition for all concerned — parents, children, other travelers — and has raised the ire of parents, consumer groups and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who has weighed in with letters to the Department of Transportation and calls for legislation against the fees.

“Requiring parents to pay an additional fee to make sure their kids are sitting next to them and in sight is ridiculous and simply over the top,” said Schumer in a statement. “This ill-conceived ploy to foist more fees on travelers could have profound implications for the safety of children on airlines and it needs to be revisited.”

The problem is exacerbated, says George Hobica, of AirfareWatchdog, when airlines limit the number of assignable seats they make available during booking or when only premium seats appear.

“It’s not that you won’t get a seat; it’s that you won’t get to choose a particular seat,” he told msnbc.com. “It’s part revenue play and part catering to their best customers. But it’s more of a revenue play.”

Airlines maintain the situation is not as dire as it’s often presented. It’s not uncommon for additional seats to become available in the days and hours before departure and gate agents and flight attendants are trained to spot potential problems and work with passengers to switch seats so families can fly together.

On the other hand, travelers should also remember that this is the airline industry and once an idea takes root, it inevitably spreads. While the trend of charging for premium coach seats is now well-embedded, the next step may be to charge a fee for all assigned seats.

Such fees, of course, are already commonplace at low-cost carriers — see this chart at AirfareWatchdog to see who charges what — but they could easily spread to the majors.

In March, for example, Delta introduced a new fare class called Basic Economy, which offers a slight discount ($12–$20) for travelers willing to forgo a seat assignment until check-in, along with other restrictions. The option is currently limited to flights between Detroit and four cities in Florida, where, it should come as no surprise, the carrier competes against airlines that typically don't offer advance seat assignments.

Delta’s new fare is obviously a poor choice for travelers who want to sit together but it’s equally apparent that travelers who do want assigned seats are essentially paying for the privilege.

“We’ve made it abundantly clear that Basic Economy doesn’t come with advance seat assignments,” said spokesman Morgan Durrant. “If that’s an issue, you don’t have to buy that fare — we have another option for that.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.