Babies on planes: Debate over safety renewed

The NTSB has repeatedly pushed the FAA for a rule requiring all airline passengers — including kids under 2 — to be restrained in a separate seat aboard planes. Photo courtesy Southwest Airlines

No one questions anymore whether or not everyone — babies included — should be buckled up in cars. It’s the law, and all 50 states currently require child-safety seats for infants and  children.

On airplanes, it’s a different story. And it’s an issue sure to be hotly debated during a forum on child passenger safety hosted in Washington D.C. on Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency tasked with investigating civil transportation accidents and studying how to make travel safer.

The NTSB has repeatedly pushed for a rule requiring all airline passengers — including infants  — to be restrained in a separate seat. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still allows children 2 years and younger to travel unrestrained on airplanes if seated on an adult’s lap. The NTSB submitted its latest safety recommendation to the FAA in August, citing plane crashes where young children held on a parent's lap were injured or killed.

The FAA’s "lap child" position disappoints, mystifies and angers many travelers, safety experts and travel industry workers.

“Adults are mistaken if they think they will be able to hold an infant in severe turbulence or a plane crash,” said flight attendant and mother Sara Keagle, who writes the Flying Pinto blog. “I have witnessed many injuries, including concussions and broken bones, in my 18 years of flying.”

In the hands of the FAA
Former flight attendant Jan Brown was aboard United Airlines flight 232 when it crashed during an attempted emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, killing 111 of the 296 passengers and crew members aboard. Four children aboard the plane were being held by adults, and one died.

“As the chief flight attendant in the United Sioux City crash, I instructed passengers to tighten their seatbelts to brace for impact and [I explained] the exit strategy,” said Brown, who is now a child-seat advocate. “But I had nothing to offer for lap children except for the adult to place them on the floor and hold them there, buffeted by pillows and blankets. A pet carrier would have been safer!”

NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman agrees. “Everyone else on the plane, as well as baggage and coffee pots, must be restrained, but the children under 2 are ignored … It defies logic to restrain babies in automobiles that travel at 50 mph and not in airplanes traveling 250 mph.”

The FAA actually agrees with the NTSB that every person on an airplane should have their own seat. On its website, the FAA’s section on child safety on airplanes begins: “Did you know that the safest place for your little one during turbulence or an emergency is in an approved child restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap?”

But FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette says the “diversion issue” keeps the agency from making a formal ruling on lap children. “It used to be there’d be an empty seat available on airplanes and the airlines would let you use those empty seats for your child’s safety seat. But planes are now flying full and you’re faced with having to buy an extra ticket to be guaranteed you’ll be able to use the child-safety seat.”

Duquette says the FAA believes that requiring parents to purchase seats for very young children would lead some families to decide to drive instead of fly. “We’re part of the Department of Transportation. And to us it’s good public policy to not promulgate a rule knowing we’re going to put some children at greater risk. Instead of flying, which is very safe, they’d be put on the highway, which is far less safe.”

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children 14 and younger, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2009, 322 children ages 4 and younger were killed in car crashes.

The cost of flying
Amber Johnson, editor of the Denver Post’s Mile High Mamas parenting blog, understands the FAA's logic. “It costs a lot to fly. An FAA law requiring this [seats for very young children] would be met with a lot of backlash from parents. We took advantage of having our babies in our laps numerous times. But now that my children are over 2, we often opt-out of air travel because we just can't afford to buy tickets for a family of four.”

But Jennifer Miner of the Vacation Gals website is in favor of a rule requiring a seat for every passenger. “As parents, our number one concern is child safety. While there’s an added cost to buying an additional seat for your tot, the potential danger of not doing so far outweighs the pinch you'll feel in your wallet.”

For now, parents trying to decide what to do will get little limited help from the FAA. The agency has decided to avoid regulation in favor of education and offers instead a downloadable brochure that lists recommendations for parents that includes advice on how to select and use a child seat based on the weight of a child and recommends asking an airline if they offer discounts for small children.

“Not good enough,” says nurse consultant and travel expert Anya Clowers of “Parents are making the decision to hold a child based on the assumption it wouldn't be allowed if not safe. But what parent has time or the desire to research the FAA website? These warnings should be on travel or airline websites so people can consider the safety factor before booking tickets.”

John Goglia, a former NTSB board member and now an independent air safety consultant, doesn’t think that’s likely to happen. He blames the airlines. “The FAA, at the urging of the airlines, refuses to mandate safety seats not because it believes driving is less safe but because driving would deprive the airlines of revenue. But who knows, maybe a progressive airline will see a revenue opportunity in attracting families with infants by offering a free seat to infants along with proper restraints!”