Child safety for infants on planes

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Much has been written over the last nine months about safety regulations for infants on planes as three parents are fighting American, Delta, and United Airlines when they were forbidden to use child-safety seats or restraints on planes. Questions such as “Why Can’t Airlines Comply with FAA Kid Seat Safety Rule?” were asked by reporters and bloggers. But this question misses some of the nuances of this issue. 

First, the Federal Aviation Administration website itself (http://www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children) uses words like “recommends” and “strongly urges” parents to use a child safety restraint system (CRS) for children under the age of 2, and suggests that their tip sheet can be carried onto planes as proof for their recommendations…but these are recommendations for parents not directives or mandates to the airlines. 

According to the FAA, “A CRS is a hard-backed child safety seat that is approved by the government for use in both motor vehicles and aircraft. FAA controls the approval of some but not all CRSs.” A CRS that safely fits in a plane seat will be 16 inches or narrower in width. A plane seat will need to be purchased for the infant and the CRS, and the device should be installed rear-facing if the baby is fewer than 20 pounds, or front facing if the child is between 20 and 40 pounds. 

For children who weigh more than 22 pounds but are under 44 pounds, an FAA-approved Child Harness Device called a CARES may be used. CARES can be ordered from KidsFlySafe.com or from Amazon (but not from any local retailers). Video on the FAA website shows the proper installation of both the CRS and the CARES. 

A second part of the issue resides with the airlines and their own regulations, none of which are consistent except for those that are FAA-mandated, so it pays for parents to know the guidelines and recommendations of the airlines they are flying, each time they fly. For example, on the American/US Airways website section on traveling with children and infants, the web page text begins with this caveat: “If one or more of your flights is on US Airways, policies may vary depending on which airline operates your flight.” (Remember many of the major U.S. carriers have affiliates whose rules may be different from theirs.) Later on the page of small text of American/U.S. Airways website, the airline tells you that children under the age of 2 may fly for free in an accompanying adult’s lap (over the age of 16) within the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but that for trips to Latin America a 10-percent cost of an adult ticket surcharge applies to children on laps. 

Southwest’s website says an infant may be on the lap (free of charge) of anyone over the age of 12, but that they, along with the FAA, recommend purchasing a seat and securing the child who weighs under 40 pounds to the plane seat in a CRS. Southwest also has this warning: “Devices that tie the child to another person are prohibited for taxi, takeoff, and landing, and backless booster seats are not approved for use during any phase of flight regardless of any approval labels they bear.”

Delta Airlines’ guidelines say that infants and children under the age of 2 may travel for free within the U.S. on an adult’s lap (18 or older), but that “we recommend you purchase a seat on the aircraft and use an approved child safety seat.” Delta’s boarding passes indicate “infant in arms” to alert the flight crew. 

United Airlines designates that a child under the age of two can fly in the arms/lap of an adult over 18 in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands free of charge and that due to “oxygen mask allocation, on some aircraft only one lap child is allowed per seat section.” United’s website says “you may use an approved infant car seat on board the aircraft when you purchase a seat for your child” and that bassinets can be reserved free of charge for use in BusinessFirst and Economy class on international flights on select Boeing 747 (economy only), 757, 767, 777, and 787 aircraft. Bassinets cannot be used during taxi, takeoff, landing or when the seatbelt sign is illuminated.

Boeing itself recommends buying a separate seat for a child under the age of two as the safest way to travel, especially during unexpected turbulence. 

All airlines state that no CRS can be used in aisle seats as they might impede evacuation, emergency exit rows, or any seat one row forward or one row after the exit row. Other restrictions may include bulkhead seats and flat-bed seats. Window seats are the best location for installation of a CRS. If you’re flying on a very large aircraft a configuration of 2-4-2, the former flight attendant and mom Carrie Bradley who founded flyingwithbaby.com recommends going for the middle four seats with the CRS in between the parents. 

Ultimately, child safety on planes becomes the responsibility of the parents, who must understand the rules set forth by each airline since the FAA has no mandates requiring infants in seats or in laps, only recommendations.