Infants and Air Travel: Should Child Seats Be Required?

I wouldn’t consider myself a frequent flyer, but I’ve flown enough times to have occupied a seat across from an infant, precariously perched atop his mother’s lap. When others are asked to fasten their seatbelts due to take-off, landing or turbulence, these tiny travelers are not required to oblige. Currently, parents traveling with children under two are not required to purchase a seat for their child in order to strap him into a child restraint system (CRS). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends the use of a CRS, but does not require it.

Organizations urge child restraint requirement

In August, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revisited Safety Recommendation A-95-51, which suggests that the FAA revise the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) to require that all occupants be restrained during takeoff, landing, and turbulent conditions. The NTSB reports that the practice of infants being held rather than restrained dates back to the beginning of commercial air travel. In their August report, they state, "The infant exemption from a restraint requirement was initially granted out of practicality, since infants could not be properly restrained in existing aircraft seats." This is no longer the case. Many of the child restraint seats on the market today satisfy both vehicle and air travel. To ensure that a safety seat has received FAA approval, parents should look for a label reading: "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft."

In a policy statement dated November 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states: "Children should be afforded the same protection as other passengers. Restraint use in aircraft for children younger than two years should be mandatory during takeoff, landing, and conditions of turbulence." The AAP also encourages pediatricians to talk to families about safe air travel.

Both the National Safe Kids Campaign and the Association of Flight Attendants have also advocated the use of child restraint systems in aircraft. This leaves many parents in a quandary. If the use of a CRS is imperative to a child’s safety, why hasn’t it been made mandatory, and why haven’t the risks been emphasized?

Although the FAA encourages the use of child safety restraints in airplanes, it also argues that requiring parents to purchase a seat for their baby will force many (due to financial reasons) to divert to travel by car, which is more dangerous overall. This seems to be the most compelling argument. The FAA also argues that more adult passengers will be bumped due to an increased number of seats being occupied by children under two, and that costs associated with the CRS requirement will have to be absorbed by both the air carriers and the passengers.

Local parents weigh in

While governmental organizations continue to hash out their differences with statistical analyses and reports, parents are faced with making a personal decision about what to do with their baby while traveling by air. In the August report, the NTSB states: "The infrequency of large-scale fatal air carrier accidents in the United States, combined with an ongoing public image of air accidents as always catastrophic, may lead travelers to minimize the importance of passenger restraints. Accident data clearly show this perception to be incorrect, considering that between 1983 and 2000, more than 95 percent of occupants of aircraft involved in air carrier accidents survived." This leads one to consider those accidents where restrained passengers survived and non-restrained infant passengers did not. The AAP policy statement cites the 1987 crash in Denver, CO; the 1989 crash in Sioux City, IA; and the 1994 crash in Charlotte, NC.

Tracy MacQueen, a Glen Oaks resident and mother of two, chose to travel using a child restraint seat for her youngest daughter. "I used her car restraint seat," she says. "The airline told me that I would have to pay full fare for a seat by doing this. They said that I could opt to have her on my lap for free." MacQueen, a registered nurse, attributes her medical background to her awareness of the dangers associated with lap travel: "I know all of the dangers and I opted to do it regardless of being told to or not." She explains further, "I would have preferred that it be listed as a requirement, especially for those who are not aware of the safety issues."

Lucia Accardo, a mom from Middle Village, flew with her 17-month-old daughter to Disneyworld. Accardo chose to travel with her daughter on her lap. "She was restless at some points and wanted to get up and walk around," Accardo says. When asked if she would drive if purchasing a seat becomes a requirement, Accardo responds, "I would choose to drive." This factor is a formidable one. Many families live thousands of miles from one another, and purchasing extra tickets for babies is simply not affordable for some.

Cynthia Fusco, a Maspeth resident, flew to Florida with her 14-month-old daughter on her lap. "I was not at all comfortable with her on my lap," she admits. Fusco says that on the return trip, her baby was able to occupy the empty seat next to her (if available, airlines will often allow parents with babies to use empty seats). "It was much easier with her in her own seat," she says. Fusco also asks, "Why isn’t it enforced [the use of restraints] the way it is with automobiles? I realize that purchasing an extra ticket is expensive, but the airlines should be able to offer a discount for children under a certain age." Some airlines do offer discounts. Parents need to ask before making arrangements. Fusco plans to fly again next month and has already decided to purchase a seat and use her daughter’s car seat. "I’ve decided to purchase a ticket and have her in her own seat for her safety and for the convenience it will provide," she says.

The FAA’s lack of a mandatory ruling on CRS use has caused many parents to assume that air travel without a restraint seat must not be that risky. After all, when you travel by car, a restraint seat is mandatory. Considering the wealth of inconveniences, high cost and discomfort to the baby and other passengers, many parents have opted to choose "lap travel" for their babies.

The March 1999 testimony of Jim Hall (chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board) before the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies provides a powerful perspective: "It makes no sense to us that during take-off, landing, and in turbulence, adults are required to be buckled up, baggage and coffee pots are stowed, computers are turned off and put away, but our children are left unrestrained. During turbulence or an accident, an unrestrained child is a danger to itself and others. Protecting children on airplanes should not be an option — one level of safety should exist for all passengers."

Rules for CRS use on airplanes

• Your child’s restraint seat must have a label, which reads: This restraint is certified for motor vehicles and airplanes. • Purchase a seat. There won’t always be extra seats available for your CRS. • Ask the airline for a discount. Some airlines give discounts for children under two. • The restraint seat should be no wider than 16 inches. • Children under 20 pounds should be in a rear-facing restraint seat. • Children 20 to 40 pounds should be in a forward-facing restraint seat. • Children over 40 pounds can safely use the aircraft seatbelt. • In general, booster seats are not allowed on airplanes. Only those "booster seats" with backs and marked "Approved for aviation use" can be used. • Belly belts and vest type devices are not allowed. • The child restraint seats must be installed in forward-facing airplane seats.

What the airlines charge for kids:

Airline discounts for bringing on a car seat are as varied as the services the industry provides. Here’s a sampling:

—American Airlines: gives a 50 percent discount if child in car seat is under 2 years —Continental: gives 50 percent discount for child in car seat —Jet Blue: no discounts —United: no discounts

— Rebecca Stolcz