There are many aspects to what makes an airline family- or child -friendly, and all airlines are anything but equal in this regard. If you're traveling with little ones (or even if you're not) here are my picks for the most family-friendly airlines.
Flying internationally? If there's a choice, you definitely want to choose a foreign-based airline over a U.S.-based one. In general, foreign airlines have the financial resources to provide families traveling with small kids better amenities (games, toys, video selections, kiddie meals, free diapers, wipes, etc.) than US-based airlines. Among the best: Emirates for travel to the Middle East and beyond, Lufthansa and British Airways for travel to Europe, Singapore for travel to Asia.
That said, now that US airlines are making money again, I expect to see them try to compete with foreign-based carriers in this regard, but only time will tell. And if you're flying domestically, I'd give Southwest Airlines the nod for being most family-oriented. Here's what to look for:
Most airlines still allow families traveling with small children to pre-board, sometimes before everyone else, other times just after first and business class passengers board. U.S.-based airlines that still allow families with small children to pre-board are preferable to those that don't allow this. Southwest, Delta, jetBlue, Alaska and Virgin still extend this courtesy. American and United do not. Southwest doesn't have assigned seats, but the airline lets families with small kids board right after those who have paid an early-boarding fee, meaning that families can almost always find seats together for free.
Free advance seat selection
Some airlines have fees for advance seat selection, making it more expensive for families with kids to sit together when planes are full. And they are designating an increasing number of seats as "premium economy," which cost extra (typically $18 to $118 each way domestically), reducing the number of fee-free seats. In addition, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic only let you choose seats for free within 24 hours of flight time, which means you may have to sit apart from your kids (these airlines do, however, let you choose a seat in advance if you're flying with an infant under age 2). In contrast, Lufthansa and most other foreign airlines let you pick seats when you book your fare. In the U.S., Spirit, Airtran, and Allegiant charge for seat selection on all flights, adding to the cost of families to sit together.
Don't expect perks such as games, free kids' entertainment, meals, formula, and diapers for infants and kids when flying on a U.S.-based airline; if you're flying overseas, you're much better off flying on a foreign airline. Emirates, British Airways, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic provide all this and more for free. Emirates even has a special frequent flyer program for kids, and they hand out colorful puppets to younger flyers (their flight attendants even don big red clown noses to distract little ones during a melt down). They'll even give your little ones a birthday cake if it's their special day. A telling detail: United now states on its website now that it cannot warm baby formula; crews on most foreign-based airlines do this without a problem.
Southwest charges just $50 each way for unaccompanied minors; most other major US airlines charge $100, so again, Southwest is the way to go.
Although I don't expect any U.S.-based airline to copy this, Malaysian Airlines bans children under 12 from the upper deck economy class section of its A380 aircraft and from first class. Air Asia reportedly also has a kids-free zone.