Babies and toddlers can’t ride in a vehicle without being secured in a car seat, but they can fly on an airplane with little to protect them except their parents’ arms.
Some safety experts say the practice of allowing children under 2 years old to fly as lap babies is outdated and dangerous in the event of turbulence, a runway collision or an in-flight emergency, however rare such incidents may be.
“A coffee pot has to be secured on an airplane because of concerns about it flying around the cabin, but you can have a baby flying around the cabin and no one’s concerned about it,” said John Goglia, an independent safety consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane crashes.
In several major incidents, including the 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Iowa, babies who were restrained in their own seats lived, while lap babies whose parents tried to hang onto them died, he noted.
The Federal Aviation Administration – which strongly recommends the use of car seats on aircraft – contends that if it required children under 2 years old to be restrained in their own seats, more parents would choose to drive to their destinations, which statistically is far more dangerous than flying.
“If we were to mandate child restraints, it would make flying unaffordable for some families,” said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. “We don’t want to force people to leave aviation and go to automobile travel, which is less safe.”
Even so, Duquette said: “In the event of turbulence or an emergency or accident, there is no way for you to hold onto a child on your lap.”
Meanwhile, some parents who buy their young children airplane seats and try to use FAA-approved car seats, which they’re entitled to do under federal rules, encounter resistance from flight attendants.
Jodi Gerstenhaber - a certified child passenger safety technician who teaches others how to install car seats - said that last November, she strapped her toddler-age twin girls into rear-facing car seats on a Jet Blue flight from New York to Orlando, Fla., but flight attendants insisted she turn the seats to face forward. When she argued, they threatened to summon an air marshal, she said.
“The only reason I backed down was because I didn’t want my kids to see me removed from the airplane,” Gerstenhaber said. She’s since become an advocate for policy changes.
So what’s going on?
Safety advocates say there are several factors in play, including airlines not wanting to lose ticket sales, flight attendants who are poorly trained and parents who think it’s safe to have a lap baby on a plane simply because it’s legal – and don’t want to pay for an additional seat.
A major obstacle to safer procedures, they say, is that FAA rules, which discuss the use of rear-facing seats for children up to 20 pounds, haven’t kept pace with recommendations by car-seat manufacturers and physicians that children stay rear facing, even on airplanes, until they’re at least 40 pounds.
The guidelines were put in place “30 years ago when seats only went to 20 pounds rear-facing, and the (FAA and airlines) just haven’t changed their policies since then,” said Alisa Baer, a pediatrician in New York who runs the popular website thecarseatlady.com.
She said all passengers, especially young children with heavy heads and stretchy necks, are better off facing the back of the plane in the event of a collision or crash.
“The flight attendants themselves ride rear-facing, and it’s not a coincidence,” Baer said. “The best way to absorb a collision is rear-facing.” She likened it to a fastball being cradled in a catcher’s mitt.
My wife and I experienced a situation last December when we installed a rear-facing car seat on a Hawaiian Airlines flight for our 23-month-old, 20-pound son. As we were pushing back from the gate, a flight attendant insisted we turn the seat front-facing because the passenger in front of us couldn’t recline her seat.
The passenger was a 3-year-old girl. Her father told the flight attendant she didn’t need to recline her seat. After we put up a bit of a fuss, citing FAA rules and the seat manufacturer’s requirement to keep the seat rear-facing until a child was 22 pounds, the flight attendant dropped the matter and walked away.
When I emailed Hawaiian about this incident recently, spokeswoman Tara Shimooka responded with a written statement saying: “For guests traveling with a small child (under the age of 2), Hawaiian Airlines recommends purchasing a seat for the child as well as using a FAA-approved child restraint system.”
Shimooka did not respond to further inquiries about the training that Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants receive regarding car seats.
Duquette said all airline flight attendants must pass an FAA-approved training course that covers the use of car seats.
Goglia said he doesn’t think it’s sufficient. Airlines have to accommodate passengers who want to use car seats for children under 2, but many flight attendants seem unaware of the rule, based on the complaints Goglia said he receives from parents.
Baer, the Car Seat Lady, said the issue extends beyond just the flight itself. Parents who don’t use car seats in flight are less likely to bring them along for the rental car at the other end of the trip, she said.
“One of the key reasons I want kids on planes in car seats,” she said, “is to have a safe seat in all of the car trips associated with that trip.”