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Flying With Baby: NTSB Pushes for the Use of Child Safety Seats on Flights

Callum and I just enjoyed his second round of airplane flights (he’s 17 months).  When I booked our tickets a month ago, I faced the “do I get him his own seat” dilemma.   As you likely know, children under 2 are allowed to fly for free on domestic US flights if they sit on an accompanying adult’s lap.  I took advantage of this on our first flight when Callum was 5 months old – at $200 a ticket, buying an extra seat is not a cheap decision.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the primary reason I decided to buy kiddo his own seat on our most recent flight was that the idea of holding a squirming toddler in close quarters was not in the least appealing (the fact that I was flying solo made this an even bigger consideration).  Callum does great in his car seat so I figured that he’d be happier in it than in my lap where the temptation to get down could only lead to fighting and kicking.   That theory turned out to be wrong on our outbound flights – he was NOT pleased at being strapped in and I caved to the “oh, fabulous, a screaming kid” looks from my fellow passengers.  On our return flights, he was perfectly happy in his seat – go figure?!

Callum In Flight

Like many parents, I never really thought twice about the safety aspect of a “lap baby;” after all, we’ve been repeatedly reminded that flying is a statistically safer means of traveling long distance than driving is.  But there is a reason the pilot asks you to keep that seat belt fastened throughout the flight and for take off and landing – turbulence can cause injuries to an un-belted passenger; a seat belt also improves your chances of surviving a runway accident, just as it would in a car.

I’m a stickler for car seat safety in cars; I obsess over my seat’s installation and plan to rear face to the limit of our seat (speaking of which, it’s time to get a bigger one as we are about to outgrow the rear facing height on our Roundabout).   On the last leg of our return flight we had a bit of turbulence – nothing that would have caused an issue had Callum been riding in my lap, but enough to make me realize that buckled tightly in his snug car seat is a much safer place, even on an airplane.  The next time I fly with Callum or any future kids, they’ll be buckled in regardless of their age or protests.

As though the flight safety gods had read my mind, I returned home to find that the National Transportation Safety Board has recently renewed their call for children under 2 to be restrained in appropriate child safety seats during air travel.   The Federal Aviation Administration also strongly recommends the use of child safety restraints on airplanes as does the American Academy of Pediatrics.   While it is still statistically safer to fly instead of drive and the chance of injury or death is slim, even for an unrestrained child, the fact is that children have died in incidents on planes that they could have survived had they been in car seats.

The complete FAA regulations regarding the use of car seats on airplanes can be found here.  A few highlights:

  • All child restraint systems (CRS) are not approved for airplane use; some CRS are specifically designed for airplane use and can not be used in cars.
  • Booster seats can not be used on airplanes (there must be a harness on the CRS).
  • The CRS must be installed forward facing or rear facing in accordance with the directions on the label.  If your seat says it can rear face to 30 pounds and you have a 22 pound toddler, you can install your seat rear facing.  If you have a child under 1, the seat must be installed rear facing as indicated on the label.
  • The CRS must have a label indicating it is approved for airplane use.
  • The CRS should be installed in a window seat; exceptions may be made for families traveling with more than one child.
  • The CRS can not be installed in an exit row nor in the row immediately in front of or behind an exit row.
  • Aircraft operators have overall responsibility for ensuring proper installation and use of the CRS.

If you plan to fly with a child, I’d encourage you to read the entire document as well as the other documents linked above from the FAA and AAP before you make a decision on whether or not to fly with a lap child.

I also wanted to share a bit of what I learned from my recent flights as well as things I’ve heard from other parents about flying with seats:

  • Flying with a seat is a good workout if you have connections to make!  You may want to allow additional time between flights.  I assumed an hour would be plenty but ended up sprinting with kiddo on my back and car seat in hand only to arrive as my next flight was boarding – whew!  I hadn’t accounted for the fact that I would be the last person off the plane since I didn’t want to hold up the line as I uninstalled my seat, got kiddo on my back, and gathered my things.  This would be less of an issue if you were traveling with a partner to lend a hand.
  • Take advantage of early boarding!  Installing the seat was tricky – and I have a Britax which generally has a reputation for being an easy install.  Airplane seat belts are not designed for carseats.  If seats become mandatory, I hope airlines rethink belt design to better accommodate seats.  On one flight the belt got so twisted that I had to fight with it for a good 10 minutes – I was one of the first people on the plane but didn’t get everything sorted out and both of us buckled in until minutes before we pushed back from the gate.
  • Out of 4 flights, only once did a flight attendant ask to see the label on my seat.  Not sure if that means that FAs aren’t reminded to do this or if the other FAs just recognized my seat and knew that it was approved.
  • No one ever checked the install of my seat.  One FA did offer to assist me but actually didn’t tighten the belt nearly enough so I had to redo it.  My guess is this is not something that FAs receive regular training on.  But it seems they should since the FAA clearly states that final responsibility for proper CRS use rests with the airline.  Again, given the belt design, it would have been helpful to have someone who knew how to best manipulate the seat into a safe install – honestly, I was never able to get it fully tightened.
  • I was not required to keep kiddo in his seat.  As I mentioned on our outbound flights, he wasn’t having it so I didn’t strap him in.  But since he’s under 2, I wasn’t required to put him in his seat.
  • Even though kiddo is rear facing in the car, I installed the seat forward facing on the plane.  To install rear facing, you need a belt extender – which I didn’t ask for.  I was also a bit worried the Roundabout wouldn’t fit rear facing on the smaller plane we were on (although I think it would have).  If I had it to do again, I’d put him rear facing – easier to see him, prevents seat kicking, and is surely safer (although you could debate the necessity since this would only be an issue in runway accidents and not in turbulence).   The seat kicking issue though is enough to make me want to rear face!  I have heard some parents say they were told they couldn’t rear face a child over 1; according to the FAA document, if your seat says your child is within the rear facing limit, they can be rear faced.  Note this applies only to US domestic flights.
  • On every flight the FAs were quite helpful and offered me assistance getting on and off the plane.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to babywearing – surprise!  Wearing kiddo made it much easier to get on and off the plane (I couldn’t have done it without help otherwise).  It also made going through security faster and easier.  I was allowed to wear him through security (he was in a wrap – not sure if that made a difference) – until the metal detector went off!  As a side note, you aren’t allowed to wear a baby during take off and landing (which I learned when I flew with Callum at 5 months – although only one FA enforced that).

We’d love to hear about your experiences flying with babies and toddlers – leave us a comment!

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Published in Health Travel