Thursday, May 9, 2013

Airport Series - Boarding Gate

1. Packing
2. Getting to the Airport
3. Checking In Luggage
4. TSA Security Screening
5. Boarding Gate
6. Immigration

Here's a photo of me from a few weeks ago running through the Rio de Janiero International Airport last month. As you can see, many airports (most in general) aren't really set up to be lap child friendly.

But of course, the airlines make sure you're there waiting at the boarding gate at least 30-45 minutes before your scheduled departure time. And if you're flying to/from South America, it's actually 60 minutes before (as certain associated passenger demographics may not be as punctual as others).

So while there's not much you can do as a lap child, your parents will just need to keep you belted down in your stroller for as long as possible. But again, with the TSA security lines, this process can be managed a bit better when you know what to expect in advance.

Step 1 - Identify Your Gate

Surprisingly, there's more than 1 flight departing the airport at the same time, so you'll have to find your assigned gate. The boarding pass in your hand or the check in confirmation email may have the right gate assignment, but there's always a chance that it's been updated last minute so the best source to check is the Big Board.

They list out all the flights with their departure gate and status (Boarding, On Time, Delayed, Cancelled, etc). The helpful ones list the flights alphabetically by Destination City, but sometimes they list by scheduled departure time. Either way, you should be able to find your flight pretty easily if you know how to read.

Step 2 - Find Your Gate

But now that you know which gate you need, you'll then have to get your parents to look at a map to find out where that gate is. Sometimes, the distance to your gate can be a really long walk, especially if you have very short kid legs. So your parents need to plan to leave early if they think they'll need time to get to the other side of the massive airport.

Looking at the airport map is also a great time to find out where you can get some food/water or last minute souvenirs. We know Newark Airport like the back of our hand, but other smaller airports may not have much food available after security, so we like to know in advance.

Step 3 - Gate Check the Stroller

We always bring the stroller with us all the way to the gate. Some people like to check it with the rest of their luggage, but I like having a place to sit for the 30 minutes you're at the airport before your flight.

You're allowed to then gate check the stroller which means you can bring it with you through the jet bridge and fold it up right before you board the plane. The crew will stow it under for the flight and return it to you at the jet bridge when you land.

But to be able to do gate check, you need to go up to the gate agent and ask for a "gate check ticket" that you put onto the stroller. Just in case it gets lost, the ticket will identify who owns the stroller and where it's going. It's important that your parents get this ticket BEFORE they start calling for boarding, because otherwise, the gate agents will be busy and you'll hold up everyone else anxiously trying to board.

Once you have the stroller tagged, just go back to your seat and wait for them to start boarding.

Step 4 - Boarding Process

For some reason, adults never really mature. Just like 1st graders who always want to be first in line, all the grown up passengers start congregating near the gate whenever they announce they're going to start boarding. Despite having boarding Groups 1-7 on most flights, people always try to cut ahead of their Group number and you end up with a line that looks more like the red side than the blue side of this graphic.

The reason for this dynamic is because airlines started charging checked bag fees ($25+ per bag per flight). This fee has led to more and more people using large (but approved) carry-on bags which cannot all fit in the overhead bins. So the first ones aboard get first dibs on the overhead space, allowing the space in the seat in front to be available for their big feet. Those who board last will probably not have space for their carry on bags and will have to gate check them.

BUT, there's usually an advance call for US Military Personnel and anyone needing assistance boarding. I don't know what the official qualifications are for "needing assistance," but my mother will assure you that having an infant lap child will meet those standards. Some airlines formally announce "any passengers with small children" but many do not (including United), but 9 times out of 10, the gate agent will accommodate you.

Step 5 - Seating

Some parents suggest splitting up when they board, allowing the parent without the child to board first and start prepping the seat (stowing luggage and getting the car seat installed). Then when the second parent comes with the infant, they're ready.

We don't use a car seat for me because my parents are too cheap to pay for an extra seat while I can still fly for free in my mother's lap. But when I do turn 2 years old in a few months, I'll make sure they have me safely secured in a car seat or a CARES harness system.

NOTE: this is the WORST time to pull out the iPad, even if the child is getting anxious. Why? Because you're going to have to turn it off when the airplane door shuts and then the infant will go nuts. Good luck with that.

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