A colleague recently came to me, troubled by events that happened on an airplane trip. She sat next to a father who was holding an infant — a “lap child.” In the row behind them, the baby’s mother was holding a toddler on her lap, and another child around 4 years old was belted in next to her.
“They probably felt that because lap children are allowed, it must be okay,” my colleague said. “And they are transporting five people and only paying for three seats, so why not? I just remember thinking, ‘What if there’s an episode of extreme turbulence, or an emergency landing is needed? How would they ever keep two lap babies from harm, or keep all three children safe and get them down an inflatable slide?’ I didn’t know what to say to them, Amy. I was afraid for what could happen to their family.”
When people think of child passenger safety, they tend to picture a child being secured into an approved car seat that is properly positioned in the back seat of a car or minivan. We’ve all heard tragic stories of children killed in auto crashes. Now, parents often can’t leave the hospital with a newborn child unless they have a car seat properly installed in the car.
So why is our thinking so different about children flying on airplanes?
For one, air travel is relatively safe. Since 2009, there has been only one fatality on a U.S. commercial airline. In 2016, only 33 serious passenger injuries due to turbulence were reported. (A serious injury is defined as one requiring more than 48 hours of hospitalization, a broken bone or other severe injury or burn, and less-serious injuries are not tracked.)
However, does a low number of injuries and fatalities mean you shouldn’t care, or that it’s not important? If your child were injured in any way, would you be glad you reduced your flight cost by holding your baby on your lap? Even one injury or death is too many.
Some have experienced this firsthand and their stories are heartbreaking. In 1989, a plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield. Two mothers were holding children on their laps. One child died. The other child was found alive in an overhead bin. Neither mother was able to effectively restrain her child according to the emergency landing instructions they were given at the time: wrap them in blankets, place them on the floor and secure them with your hands and feet.
Many people assume that if airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration allow lap babies, it must be safe. The truth is that the FAA “strongly urges you to secure your child in a child restraint system or device for the duration of your flight” but stops short of requiring it. The FAA Flying with Children page gives valuable information about how to get you and your family safely to your destination. This includes how to determine whether your car seat is approved for use on a commercial flight. In addition, you could use the AmSafe Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) for children between 22 and 44 pounds, but for infants in particular, a car seat is safest to support their head and neck.
My organization, the National Safety Council, has a Child Passenger Restraint Policy aimed at protecting our youngest and most vulnerable passengers. We will continue to advocate for regulations requiring child restraints on airplanes, and we applaud legislators for recent efforts to ensure airlines are following current guidelines. Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy and Edward J. Markey recently sent a letter to the FAA asking what the agency is doing to ensure airlines are carrying out proper practices to protect children. Whether or not regulations require it, keep your children safe on airplanes by properly securing them in their own seat for every flight. Their health and safety is worth the extra expense.