Southwest Airlines ends 'family first' boarding

— -- Families traveling with small children will no longer get to jump to the front of the boarding line at Southwest Airlines.

The airline, which carries more than one in three Phoenix passengers, is eliminating early pre-boarding for families beginning Oct. 2 in a bid to speed the boarding process.

Families with children four and under will now board after the first regular boarding group unless they have an A boarding pass to be in that first group. Southwest famously doesn't assign seats. Passengers board in three groups, A, B and C, with their letter determined by when they checked in.

Passengers can check in online 24 hours before their flight, and many people fanatically watch the clock to make sure they snag an A boarding pass and their pick of seats. Families didn't have to fret if they didn't snag an A pass since they preboarded.

The airline tested the new system this summer in San Antonio.

"We decided that it works for us," said spokeswoman Brandy King.

Other boarding and seating changes may be brewing. Southwest, which has been studying alternatives for more than a year, on Wednesday plans to announce its long awaited decision on whether to switch to assigned seating or otherwise tinker with its open boarding policy.

It has long been derided by some business travelers and others as a cattle call, but also has legions of vocal fans who don't want the airline to mess with a good thing. The debate has generated more comments on Southwest's blog than any other topic.

King was mum on which way the company is headed but did say the changes would not be implemented immediately.

It may not be as simple as a yes or no decision. Even if the airline decides against assigning seats, it appears likely it will at least alter its boarding process after testing several methods in San Antonio this summer.

It tried out a more orderly boarding process, with passengers called in groups according to a number on their A, B and C passes. That eliminated the need to form the snaking, confusing A, B, C lines Southwest is famous for at its airport gates.

Some analysts expect the airline to eventually charge for an A boarding pass and/or give them to travelers who paid full fare for their tickets.

"Our customers have been waiting for this answer for a while," King said.

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