When the seat belt light blinks on, every passenger buckles up except for one group of fliers: lap babies. Unrestrained children sharing a seat with their parents are exempt from the safety mandate, presenting a growing concern amid recent incidents of severe turbulence.
“We’ve seen airplanes go through turbulence recently and drop 4,000 feet in a split second,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “The G-forces are not something even the most loving mother or father can guard against and hold their child. It’s just physically impossible.”
The union is pressing for a rule change that would require all passengers, regardless of age, to occupy an airplane seat with a restraint. Currently, children under 2 can fly free on their parents’ laps.
The AFA-CWA raised the issue Wednesday at the Federal Aviation Administration safety summit in Northern Virginia and has submitted its list of priorities, including “a seat for every soul,” to Congress. Legislators are in the process of crafting a FAA reauthorization bill, which expires in September. The union submitted the same recommendation during the last round of reauthorization in 2018.
The tragedy that haunts Nelson occurred in 1989, when United Flight 232 crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa. Following protocol, the flight attendants instructed the parents to wrap their unbuckled babies in blankets and place them on the floor. Three of the infants suffered injuries, and one died.
“Sadly this has been more than a 30-year priority for our union,” Nelson said. “We must have children safe on the plane and in their own seats with a proper restraint device to make sure it never happens again.”
In 1994, the debate reemerged when a little girl sitting on her mother’s lap died in a USAir crash in Charlotte.
“The safest possible thing is for everybody to be restrained,” said Ben Hoffman, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
According to the FAA’s Civil Air Regulation Section 40.174, “A seat and an individual safety belt are required for each passenger and crew member excluding infants, who are in other than a recumbent position.”
Over the years, a variety of organizations and experts have contested the wisdom of this regulation, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
On many foreign carriers, parents can (loosely) secure their child with a belly loop belt that wraps around the baby’s torso and attaches to the adult’s seat belt. However, the FAA prohibits this accessory on U.S. carriers because of its potential dangers.
“During dynamic testing, the forward flailing of the adult and the child resulted in severe body impacts against the forward seat,” the agency stated in an advisory circular that addresses the supplemental belt.
Hoffman said the safest option is for parents to purchase a seat for their infant or toddler and secure them in a FAA-approved child restraint system (or car seat, in parenting vernacular). The agency has also certified a harness-like contraption called the Child Aviation Restraint System, or CARES, which the company AmSafe recommends for children weighing 20 to 40 pounds.
Interestingly, the FAA echoes this position. In its “Flying with Children” overview, the agency states: “The safest place for your child under the age of two on a U.S. airplane is in approved child restraint system (CRS) or device, not in your lap. Your arms aren’t capable of holding your in-lap child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence, which is the number one cause of pediatric injuries on an airplane.”
The International Air Transport Association’s Best Practices Guide also recommends that parents tuck their children into a restraining device approved by the country’s safety regulator and the airline. But the association concedes: “If the responsible person does not provide an approved infant restraint system, or if the CRS is not accepted in accordance with the airline’s policy or State regulations, the infant should be held by a responsible person.”
Hoffman recognizes the drawbacks of requiring parents to purchase airplane tickets for their youngsters. The main concern is that families will not be able to afford the airfare and will resort to driving, a more perilous mode of transportation.
“If they travel by car instead, they will actually be putting themselves at a significantly greater risk, because car crashes are so much more common than airplane incidents, whether it’s a crash or turbulence,” Hoffman said.
To emphasize his point, he cited a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics that assessed the risks to children if families switched from air to car travel. The researchers determined that if as few as 5 to 10 percent of travelers hit the road instead of flying, the number of infant deaths caused by car accidents would likely exceed the number of fatalities averted by requiring child restraints on planes.
“Unless space for young children in restraint seats can be provided at low cost to families, with little or no diversion to automobile travel, a policy requiring restraint seat use could cause a net increase in deaths,” the researchers concluded.
Hoffman said the best solution is for airlines to discount tickets for young travelers. “That would be great if the airline provided some mechanism to support the parents and not charge a full fare,” he said. “But the current system is cost prohibitive for many families.”
Colleen Lanin, the founder and editor of TravelMamas.com, flew once with her child on her lap and never again. Concerned about endangering her children, she decided to invest in seats for her daughter and son on subsequent flights.
She first used an FAA-approved car seat, which was safer but not stress-free: On a flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St. Paul, a helpful passenger had fastened the gear so tightly to the plane seat, she could not remove it at her final destination. The airline had to call security to help. Once her children could sit up independently, she used a CARES harness, which is significantly lighter and less bulky than a car seat, which can be a hassle to drag through the airport.
“Pay for the extra seat. It makes your life so much easier,” said Lanin, whose children are now teenagers. “If you can’t afford that ticket, find a more affordable flight, or fly to a closer destination, or fly during weird times.”
Some parents have discovered temporary reprieves from holding their babies on long-haul flights. When their youngest daughter was a baby, Jolene and Andrzej Ejmont, founders of Wanderlust Storytellers, would reserve a bassinet, an amenity often available on international flights. However, during takeoff, landing and stretches of bumpy air, the Ejmonts would have to hold Avalee-Rose, who is now 7 years old.
“During minor turbulence, the [flight attendants] would take the bassinet off, and we would have to take her out, put her back in, out, in,” Andrej said. “It was very annoying.”
The couple also secured Avalee-Rose in a carrier worn like a chest pack. “That felt safer because she was always on me, strapped in,” said Ejmont, whose family of five is based in Australia and spends about half the year traveling. But like the bassinet, the airline requires parents to remove their babies during certain maneuvers and conditions.
Hoffman warns that the carrier is not foolproof, especially during severe turbulence. “The child can slip out of it because of all of that force. A plane that falls 4,000 feet in seconds — that’s like being shot out of a cannon. A front pack is not going to do the same as a car seat.”