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Airline Travel and Child Safety

Proper use of an approved child restraint system (CRS) on an aircraft enhances child safety in the event of turbulence or an accident. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly recommends that all children who fly, regardless of their age, use the appropriate restraint based on their size and weight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I buy a separate seat for my child when he can fly on my lap for free?:

- Safety: Turbulence, sudden stops and emergency landings present a huge risk to the lap child. First, in severe turbulence, it is unlikely that the parent would be able to hold on to their child. It is very likely that the child would be tossed around the passenger cabin and sustain serious injuries or even be killed. Second, in emergency landings, parents of lap children are instructed to wrap their child in blankets and place the child at their feet. Children have died in survivable landings when they were thrown through the cabin. Unrestrained children also pose a hazard to other passengers - when a 20 lb child is thrown through the cabin in an accident, he would have a force of 1000 lbs (at only 50 mph, much more at higher speeds) when striking another person or object. Third, parents who are able to hold on to their children in a sudden stop or collision will very likely end up using that child as a "human air bag". Children have actually been "crushed to death" by the parent on whose lap they were sitting.

From the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Restraint Use on Aircraft:  "Occupant protection policies for children younger than 2 years on aircraft are inconsistent with all other national policies on safe transportation.   Children younger than 2 years are not required to be restrained or secured on aircraft during takeoff, landing, and conditions of turbulence. They are permitted to be held on the lap of an adult. Preventable injuries and deaths have occurred in children younger than 2 years who were unrestrained in
aircraft during survivable crashes and conditions of turbulence. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a mandatory federal requirement for restraint use for children on aircraft. The Academy further recommends that parents ensure that a seat is available for all children during aircraft transport and follow current recommendations for restraint use for all children. Physicians play a significant role in counseling families, advocating for public policy mandates, and encouraging technologic research that will improve protection of children in aircraft."

- Convenience: Your child should be used to sitting in their car seat every time they are in the car. An airplane ride should be no different. It may even be easier. A lap child will not understand the need to stay in your lap and may want to get down and run around the passenger cabin. Not only does this pose a risk to your child, but it can be a hazard to other passengers and flight attendants who need to go down the narrow aisle. While it will be difficult to hang on to a child who is squirmy and cranky in your lap, it may be very easy to entertain a child in their comfortable, familiar car seat. Many children also fall asleep in their car seat, making the trip more pleasant for parents and passengers alike.

- Child Safety Seat Issues: The best way to get a child to happily use a car seat is to use it all the time, every time. Make no exceptions. If the child isn't buckled in, the car doesn't go. Using a car seat on an airplane only serves to reinforce the "no exceptions" policy. And since a child who has used a car seat all the time, every time, since day one is used to being in it, they won't notice any difference on an airplane (and may travel better than a baby who's suddenly forced to stay on your lap)

Should I use my child safety seat on the airplane or just the lap belt they provide?:

1) A child who fits within the limits of a rear-facing seat (either an infant seat or, or if too big for an infant seat,  a convertible seat) should use a rear-facing seat  tightly installed using the airplane's belt.

2) A child who is at least a year AND 20 lbs (must be both) can use a forward-facing seat (either a convertible seat or a high-back booster WITH the internal harness) tightly installed using the airplane's belt. However, many children can remain rear-facing for up to 30-35 lbs, based on the seat's rear-facing weight. Engineers and safety experts state that rear-facing would be safer for everyone on the plane, so as long as the child fits in a rear-facing seat, use it that way.  For more information on rear-facing past 1 year/20 lbs on airplanes, click here

3) A child who is over 40 lbs can use a higher weight harnessed seat (such as the Britax Marathon or Safety Baby Airway) or can use the airplane's lap belt tightened snugly over the hips.

Can I use the child safety seat anywhere on the airplane I want?:

- It depends on the plane. Some car seats will not fit in the "bulkhead row". This is because the car seat is wide, and the armrests in the bulkhead rows do not lift up to accommodate that width. The last row of the plane generally will not have seats that recline - which could make installation difficult (see installation tips, below). Most airline policies state that any child restraints must be placed in the window seat. Child restraints CANNOT be used in exit rows.

How do I know if I can use my particular child safety seat on an airplane?:

- Check the label and/or carseat instructions. All seats must be approved for use on an airplane. The label will say something to the effect of "This seat is approved for use in motor vehicles and aircraft". In general, most infant seats, convertible seats and combination seats (high-back booster seats WITH an internal harness) are approved. What is not allowed: high-back belt-positioning boosters, low back boosters, shield boosters, travel vests and harnesses.

What about those "vests" that fasten to the parent's seat belt?:

- As mentioned above, any child on your lap has the potential to become a human air bag for their parent. A vest offers no more protection than holding the child on your lap. There is generally enough slack in the "tether" that attaches the vest to the seat belt to allow the child to be flung towards seats, the ceiling, and the sides of the aircraft, as well as other passengers. Most airlines state that they DO NOT allow any of these types of vests. One popular model states that it is "tested to meet or exceed FAA stress levels", but currently, there is NO certification or FAA standards for this type of product.  The FAA has banned the use of these "belly belts" and vests; they are not permitted during take-off, landing or any movement on the surface (taxi). Many parents trying to use these products have found that the airline WILL NOT ALLOW their use, despite the fact that the product package reassures them they can.

How do I know if my car seat will fit on the plane?:

- Call the airline you are using and ask if they have any guidelines for you to go by. Many have general measurements, but these should be followed as a guide. Often the widest part of the car seat will be wider than the narrowest part airplane seat, but still fit because the car seat is shaped differently than the plane seat.

Installation Tips

1) Use the seat the same way you'd use it in the car (if you use it rear-facing, rear-face on the plane, etc.).

2) Take advantage of pre-boarding. Take that extra time to get the seat installed tightly.

3) Recline the airplane seat back when installing the seat, then bring it upright to get the seat even tighter.

4) For some forward-facing seats, twist the latchplate around once (so that it's "backwards") to make it easier to unbuckle at the end of the trip. Not twisting it may make it nearly impossible to unbuckle the belt. This will also help keep the belt from slipping loose.

5) Put up at least one armrest. This will give the seat more room for installation, and keep it more stable (since resting against an armrest may cause it to tip to one side).

Remember, it's always a good idea to buy your child, no matter what their age, their own seat on the plane so you can use your child safety seat - especially since airplane seats are relatively inexpensive and children tend to be relatively fragile.


Turbulence Happens
The FAA campaign to encourage seat belt and child restraint use.  Some good tips for traveling with children.

Dear Abby
A letter from a flight attendant who's seen it all.

FAA Flight Standards Information
Bulletin regarding child restraints.  Technical, but the basic information about what is allowed and how to use it.

Baby on Board
Information on using a child restraint device and recommendations from Southwest Airlines.

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