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Debate renewed over flight safety for infants

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board recommend safety seats for young children, but many parents continue to ignore the advice.
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Parents wouldn't think of driving anywhere without securely strapping their baby in an appropriate safety seat, and they spend countless hours considering which safety seat to buy.

But on airplanes, it's a different story. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board all recommend safety seats for young children, but many parents continue to ignore the advice. (See what the FAA says.)

"Why wouldn't you want your child to be as well protected as you are?" asks Nora Marshall, who oversees the NTSB unit that studies survivability in plane crashes. The NTSB has now renewed the debate on the subject with a new recommendation that each passenger — including those under age 2 — be restrained in a separate seat in an appropriate child-restraint system during takeoff, landing and turbulence.

Everything on a plane — including coffee pots — has to be restrained during takeoff and landing and in times of turbulence, notes Marshall, a former flight attendant. Everything, that is, except young children sitting on a parent's laps.

More than 7 million children under the age of 2 fly on parents' laps on American carriers each year, according to government estimates. But you are not required to purchase a seat for your baby until they turn 2, and airlines don't charge for families to check a car seat. That is the crux of the issue that has stymied safety experts and pediatricians for years and has perhaps lulled parents into a false sense of security.

"I don't believe she'd be much safer in a seat," said Erik Kaye, a New Yorker who has flown eight times with his 15 month old, never buying her a seat. "Having flown hundreds of flights, I've never experienced turbulence so strong it would cause me to lose grip of a child," he said in an e-mail.

Much easier to nurse," added Sara Abbott, who plans to carry her soon-to-born son on her lap when she flies from Boston to visit family in Texas.

"It's cheaper and we are trying to take advantage of the savings before having to buy her a seat," said Dwight Zahringer from suburban Detroit, the parent of a toddler.

A matter of life and death
In fact, the FAA argues that requiring the use of child-restraint systems would significantly raise the price of travel for young families and concludes that this would prompt some families to drive instead, likely resulting in an increase in highway fatalities of children.

But the NTSB counters that "considerable analysis of real-world air and road vehicle data found no clearly defined relationship between diversion from air travel and highway accidents and injuries," including after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when air travel dropped significantly and road trips increased.

Parents don't appreciate that the use of safety seats can be — and has been — a matter of life and death, claims the NTSB's Marshall. She points to past cases where young children have survived plane crashes because they were restrained in safety seats and others in which children were killed when sitting in parents' laps while the adult survived.

Take the case of the United Airlines DC-10 that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. The parents of the four lap-held children were told to put their children on the cabin floor and hold them in that position while the adults assumed "the protective brace position." But three of the parents reported to investigators that they were unable to hold on to their babies and a 23-month-old died.

Five years later, a USAir flight crashed in Charlotte, N.C. Among the 37 who were killed was a nine-month-old baby held by her mother, who survived. NTSB investigators believed the baby might not have sustained fatal injuries if she had been properly restrained in a child-restraint system.

Now, in the wake of the investigation into a private plane crash nearly two years ago in Butte, Mont., that killed 14 people — including seven children  — the NTSB is once again raising the issue of why young children are permitted to fly without their own seats.

In this most recent case, three young families — including two sisters and their children — were on their way from California to rendezvous with grandparents for a ski vacation. There weren't enough seats on the plane for everyone, but that is legal — as long as the total weight per seat is not more than 170 pounds.

The FAA's decision
The NTSB has been arguing for more than 15 years that each passenger should have their own seat, pointing to private plane crashes where children survived because they were properly restrained. While the Montana crash wasn't survivable, NTSB officials say that had the crash been less severe, any unrestrained children or those sharing a single seatbelt would have been at much greater risk of injury or death. "We want to learn from this and prevent a similar tragedy," Marshall said.

Image: CARES
Aaron and CARES, the Child Aviation Restraint System.

The NTSB, though, can only make recommendations. It is up to the FAA to take action. FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the agency will consider the NTSB's recent recommendation, but the agency has no immediate plans to change its rules. To raise public awareness, the NTSB has scheduled a public forum for Dec. 9, titled Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles, which will be available on the NTSB website, where additional information about the forum can be found.

Meanwhile, it is up to the child's parent or guardian to purchase a seat. Check with the carrier for fares for children under 2, such as one offered by Southwest Airlines. The airline will offer an empty seat for a lap child, if one is available. Among other airlines, Virgin Atlantic supplies safety seats to all young children whose parents have purchased a seat for them.

Lugging a safety seat to the gate can be a pain. That's where the CARES campaign comes in. The Child Aviation Restrain System is an an FAA-approved, harness-type safety device — designed by a grandmother — that fits into a six-inch stuff sac and adjusts to fit airplane seats. It's designed for kids weighing 26 to 44 pounds (typically 1 to 4 years old).

In this challenging economy, it may be difficult to justify buying an extra plane ticket for the little one but it's all in the best interest of the child.

"There's a difference," says Marshall, "between what's allowed and what's safe."

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