Car Seats on Airplanes – Wouldya? Couldya? Shouldya?
For parents of infants and toddlers, it seems like the last thing anyone wants is another Large Kid Gadget to drag around when it is time to go on vacation. How can someone weighing 15 pounds merit 87 pounds of gear? (relax, rhetorical question) But for the parent of these youngest kids, what are the rules for child safety seats when travelling on airplanes? Is it mandatory to lug aboard and install a car seat? If a plane is going down in flames like in the opening scene of Lost, will a five point harness in a padded kiddie chair really matter?
Well, truth is, there are the rules…and there are the recommendations. These things aren’t always the same. Let us bottom line it, shall we?
First, the rules. For now in the US, the FAA does not insist that infants and children under two years are restrained during flight. These are not the ‘restraints’ one might think of on a gurney in a mental health ward. Heavens, no! Rather, this language refers to the idea of airlines requiring infants and toddlers to have their own seat, with a car seat or seatbelt adapter appropriate to their size. For the time being, parents are permitted to purchase their own tickets, with children riding free or at discounted cost as an ‘infant in arms.” Specifically, it is required that these children be held on an adult’s lap during times of takeoff, landing and turbulence.
These regulations vary internationally, with many EU nations having regulations that stipulate all passengers, including infants and small children, utilize a restraining device. Customarily in the UK, airlines use a loop device or tether for small children attached to the main seat belt. The vast majority of countries have regulations that are far less specific. For families travelling abroad, I encourage parents to call the airlines to gain useful and updated information. Even still, I add a caveat that the staff on aircraft or in farflung airports may be far less familiar (or far more annoyed) with the use of these safety seats with the littlest kids. Like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe reminds us: Don’t Panic.
The FAA and the National Highway, Traffic, and Safety Administration( NHTSA) have held numerous symposia and conferences over this topic over the last ten years, and are moving towards universal restraining device requirements for all who board US aircraft. They aren’t there…yet. The agencies have wavered, in part, from studies in the middle of the last decade that suggested that the requirement for infant/toddler safety seats would be prohibitive, forcing the purchase of a ticket for the children under two (remember, they can travel free under current regs, right?). Fearing a stampede of stickershocked people down the jetway and to their cars on the highway, the government made a rather fascinating ‘public safety’ decision. In essence, officials felt the relative risk of dying of ‘infants in arms’ due to a mishap on a plane was much lower than the risk of death or injury in a motor vehicle accident. Hence, the rules still stand.
Change seems to be seeping in slowly. Legislation passed over 10 years ago required domestic airlines to accommodate passengers with FAA-approved types of child safety seats. The ‘approved’ status is an important one, for not all seats are compatible with airline seats. This constitutes a gamechanger for some families who may need to buy a special seat for air travel (that may or may not be useable in a car). Is the 100 bucks worth the relatively small risk?
To put it bluntly, the risk of being in a plane crash is a relatively uncommon event. The relative odds of dying in a flight run about 1 in 8 million when using data quoted from the early 90′s.(other odds for comparison: odds of dying by bee sting run about 1 in 100,000; death by lightning, are about 1 in 84,000) Research of plane crash deaths and injuries revealed that approximately 1/3 of younger passengers died of head trauma. Extrapolation of automobile and aircraft crash data also conclude that children riding in the lap of an adult–no matter how tightly they are held onto–are at greater risk of substantial injury than other passengers. Children in planes riding in car seats may actually suffer fewer or less severe injuries than infants in arms.
While the risk of an aircraft crash is tiny, the risk of running into substantial turbulence during a flight is much more common. For this reason, the FAA has actually launched an information campaign urging the use of child safety seats to protect against falls and head bonks due to turbulence.
Child safety seats may afford some protection when appropriately sized and used in ideal conditions (if ever being in a plane crash can be called ideal, anyway). This is reminiscent of the fantasy scenario in our physics problems sets in pre-med; one assumed zero gravity and no friction for some computations. Nifty, but almost never true. In any event, these findings offer a basis for the movement towards better restraining of our youngest kids, when we are closer to building better, lighter, more effective airplane car seats.
On the upside, new technologies, such as insertible platforms on standard seats or child-friendly modifications to seat belt harnesses may be available in more planes in the next few years. Consumers should expect the rate of this rollout to be directly affected by the pace of regulation. When the rules pass, I reckon we’ll see a flurry of changes for airlines to be in compliance. Til then, it goes slowly.
What are the recommendations?
The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in with a lengthy article on this issue, and eventually, they restate their support for universal restraint for all passengers. The AAP call upon the FAA to implement this ASAP. (Ok?) These regulations will provide appropriate seating for children of different ages and sizes. For example, children under 12 months may require rear facing seats, while toddlers and preschoolers may need adaptive harnesses. Kids above 40 pounds may be permitted to use standard seatbelts. Oh, there’s more, but you get the idea.
In the meantime, families do have options. Parents can purchase FAA approved car seats for flights. Note bene again: seats that are safe and compatible for airplane use may not be able to be used in automobiles. Can anyone else hear the sound of parents groaning and car seat manufacturers gleefully clapping their hands? Before plunking down the bucks for a purchase of a one-seat -does-all for their child, or before having another large item to tote to the gate, I urge parents to do their research and talk it out with their children’s primary care doc. Here is a great blog on this topic to get that process started.
Is lugging a car seat worth it? From a cardio point of view, definitely. Nice workout. And, from a safety standpoint? Yeah, sorta. Yes, if you crash (but this is an event with low probability). If there is turbulence, those littluns best be secured whatever your mode of travel. (Full disclosure: for our upcoming trip, we are opting to check the car seat as baggage and go kid on the lap). There is no question, however, we parents will face an unavoidable scenario if traveling with one or more children under three. We will all have our turn carrying satchels and kid gizmos, lumbering like a gear-draped chandelier, searching for our seats, with our without a car seat.
In the meantime, a father of a family I work with much gives us a final perspective on why car seats on planes are a great idea. This may be the most compelling reason of all to suck it up and get one. I’ll paraphrase him here: “In the end, its a better deal for her mom and me. I know exactly where she is, and, I get a free lap for the flight.”
Free lap versus free ticket? Tough math, there. Choose your way, and bon voyage!
Photo above by Andy Carvin
Cartoon below by me.
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