Car Seats

Restraints in Airplane for Baby Safety

Sandra W Bullock

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Did the Alaska Air incident make you rethink baby safety when lap-carrying unrestrained babies? It got us thinking here at SaferForBaby and have been reaching out to parents in our network to raise awareness of the serious risk posed by unrestrained lap carrying in airplanes.

In this article, I have discussed in detail the different options that are possible to use including FAA-approved car seats, banned ways of restraining children passengers, and cheaper options to consider.

Let’s first start with two recent incidences that highlight the need for child restraints when flying.

Incidences that warrant use of child restraints in airplanes:

Alaska Airline Door Blow Out:

You may already be familiar with an incident involving a Boeing Airline flight operated by Alaska Airlines, in which the door plug unexpectedly blew open and fell, exposing the passengers. This occurred while the flight was still ascending, just 16 minutes after takeoff. It’s important to note that the situation could have been far worse if the flight had already reached higher altitudes, where external pressure is significantly lower.

The incident on January 7th, where Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 experienced a sudden rupture in the plane’s wall, exposing passengers to the elements outside, serves as a stark reminder that unexpected mishaps can occur. Remarkably, no passengers were ejected from the aircraft due to the difference in air pressure, which has somewhat muted the calls from safety advocates like CWA and AAP to urge the FAA to mandate the use of child restraint systems or relax its ban on carriers and lap belts.

Turkish Airlines Turbulence Sending Passengers to ER:

In 2019, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 777 landed with 30 injured occupants who had to be transported to nearby hospitals because of weather-related accidents due in part to turbulence. As witnesses later shared and videos confirmed, the scene was chaotic, with bodies being hastily placed in the overhead compartments and blood staining the surroundings. The harrowing experience left some passengers vowing never to set foot on an airplane again.

Turbulences resulting from weather-related accidents account for 71% of air carrier incidents, often leaving passengers horrified and vowing never to fly again.

Imagine the unsettling possibility of experiencing such incidents while flying with your baby, without a proper restraint system. This predicament arises from deliberately avoiding a bulky car seat and being unable to opt for travel-friendly babywearing options due to the FAA’s ban.

With the examples above, you may be thinking that it is long overdue for the FAA to require the utilization of Child Restraint Systems on airplanes. This matter has been a subject of ongoing discussion for some time now.

AAP Recommends Mandatory Use of CRS in Air Flights:

In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a mandatory federal requirement for child restraint use on aircraft. One risk study estimated that child safety seats could prevent between 0.05 to 1.6 deaths per year.

However, the Study found that mandating child safety seats may lead to increased motor vehicle mortality as parents may choose to travel by car instead. Despite this, the US Federal Aviation Administration strongly recommends child restraints on aircraft.

Parents traveling on a commercial flight with children under two years of age have the option to have their child fly for free, as long as they are held on the adult’s lap as instructed by the flight attendant. FAA has not mandated the use of CRS.

Worse Outcomes of Mandating CRS in Airlines

Before the FAA’s proposal to require the use of CRS, a series of crucial studies laid the groundwork for this recommendation. The studies examined the potential fatalities resulting from parents opting for road transport instead of air travel. This choice to resort to road travel comes purely from the economic standpoint with additional costs, such as purchasing an extra seat and obtaining a baby car seat.

Below are the studies;

  • A 1995 analysis conducted by the FAA and reported to Congress revealed that diverting to road transport would result in a net increase of 82 fatalities over 10 years.
  • An independent 1999 analysis by the DOT found that there would be a net increase of 19 fatalities over the same time frame(10 years).
  • Another 2003 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine concluded that even a mere 5% diversion of targeted travelers to highways would inevitably lead to an increase in fatalities.
  • In 2003, the NHTSA conducted an independent study that concluded that diverting any family travel to highways would increase the total number of transportation deaths.
  • A subsequent joint analysis by the FAA and NHTSA, in response to NTSB findings, revealed that if just 1% of those traveling with children under two years old chose to use highways instead, there would be a net increase in fatalities.

The True Cost of Mandating CRS to Families:

Thomas Newman and his colleagues did a study in 2003 to estimate the cost of each life saved by mandating the use of CRS in airplanes with an assumption that each child passenger’s round trip costs $200. This was a big underestimation.

The research found that it would cost about $43 million for each life-year saved and $1.3 billion for each life saved(assuming a life expectancy of 75 years). Newman et al poignantly conclude that: “Unless space for young children in restraint seats can be provided at low cost to families, with little or no diversion to automobile travel, a policy requiring restraint seat use could cause a net increase in deaths. Even excluding this possibility, the cost of the proposed policy per death prevented is high.”

The most common safety concern while flying is turbulence, which can, in extremely severe cases, give unrestrained passengers bumps, bruises, and head trauma. While CRS are very important for kids’ safety, they are not entirely necessary.

The turbulence concern is arguably a bigger deal for a baby who is less sturdy and more likely to go flying through the air; the baby being restrained via any means is an improvement over being totally unrestrained, held only in a parent’s arms.

Could Babywearing Be a Viable Cheap Alternative?

In a single study conducted in 1994, baby carriers were identified as unsuitable for one specific reason. It was found that during takeoff and landing, if the pilot needed to apply sudden brakes and bring the plane to a halt, the parent’s body weight could potentially exert pressure on the baby, pressing them against the front seat. Additionally, flight attendants highlighted that in the event of an evacuation, a child must be able to smoothly slide down and have a life vest securely fastened to them.

Babywearing not allowed on airplanes
Image showing baby carriers and wraps not allowed in airplanes

As per an advisory issued by the FAA in 1992, parents are strongly advised against strapping babies to their chests while seated on their lap. However, several TSA officials across different airports do not consistently enforce these regulations.

See a mom below showing off her Countours Carrier through TSA check-in.

mom babywearing a baby through security in an airport
Image of a mom wearing a baby through security in an airport. Credit:Contoursbaby.com

In most situations, you can generally get through security with your little one. We have personally never encountered any issues when wearing an infant, toddler, or preschooler while going through checkpoints. However, there have been instances where a TSA agent may not allow it.

image of moms using carriers in an airport
An image of moms using carriers in an airport. Credit:Contoursbaby.com

In such cases, it is advisable to have a contingency plan to avoid any complications. You may need to temporarily remove your child from the carrier and walk through the security checkpoint while holding them in your arms.

Among the reasons that the 1994 Study highlighted to deny us the use of carrier include:

  • The buckles on the carriers did not align well with the seatbelt paths on airplanes, unlike in automobiles, which made installation more challenging. I think this excuse is rather weak, as there are potential innovations that could easily address this issue. In 1996, when the NHTSA released a study demonstrating the misuse of belt clips, they did not eliminate car seats; instead, they mandated the use of ISOFIX, which later evolved into LATCH. Similarly, I believe that a better installation mechanism for car seats could also be adopted by airlines.
  • The child is in danger of getting squeezed by the carrier in case of an emergency evacuation. The study further claims that this is because, unlike car crashes where the child is projected forward, airplane accidents cause the child to be thrown upward or sideward. However, I would still argue that a properly secured car seat with a five-point harness would provide better protection than holding a child on your lap.

Another restraint solution in airplanes:

Baby Air Vest:

I found a brand called Baby Air that offers a flight vest, which serves as a child restraint system. This innovative vest features a loop on the back that securely attaches to your airline seat belt, ensuring the safety of your lap baby and reducing the risk of injury during turbulence or distractions.

When flying with a baby on your lap, this lightweight and portable item can provide extra peace of mind when worn during the flight. The comfortable cotton vest can be worn throughout the trip, and many toddlers will find the bright red fabric and buckles to be a stylish addition to their wardrobe.

Baby Air Vest - One solution to airplane restraints for kids
Baby B’Air Vest. Credit: Babybair.com

The vest features three plastic buckles that snap at the sides and crotch, while the adult’s seat belt passes through a nylon loop to securely connect the child to the parent. This harness would be an essential accessory for frequent-flying babies, if only it were FAA approved for use during takeoff and landing. Here are all FAA-approved car seats.

INFANT FLIGHT VEST
INFANT FLIGHT VEST. Credit: Baby B’Air

Unlike a typical carrier, the baby is not strapped to the chest and is secured using velcro and straps.

Below are some benefits of this vest;

  • Temporarily free up your hands
  • There is no risk of your little one getting squeezed in the event of turbulence, as the baby is not strapped to your chest.
  • Carrying a vest through security ensures no delays, unlike a car seat that requires inspection.
  • Keep your baby securely on your lap during the flight to prevent injuries from turbulence or falling off your lap.
  • Using a car seat or other child restraints on an airplane requires purchasing an additional seat ticket. A seat can cost an average of $383(Q1 2023) and an average FAA-approved car seat costs at least $200. For a round trip and the seat, add to $966.
  • The baby remains comfortable in a soft, machine-washable cotton material.

Please note that this vest is not FAA-approved for take-off or landing, nor does it provide a guarantee of accident-free travel during turbulence. However, it is available for purchase on Amazon strictly as an accessory since 2005 with great reviews.

For those opposed to using restraints, choosing to fly with unrestrained children exposes them to the risk of turbulence and potential injuries.

The FAA’s approval process for each child restraint device is not only expensive but also entangled in a complex web of bureaucracy involving multiple organizations such as the NTSB, NHTSA, FAA, and potentially Congress. This arduous and time-consuming process has led us to a state of no clear guidelines for child restraints on airplanes, leaving parents to make their judgment calls.

While it may seem like a hassle to purchase and bring a restraint device on board, the safety of your child should always take priority. In the event of turbulence or an emergency situation, having your child properly restrained can prevent serious injuries or even save their life.

Below are situations you can rely on Baby B’Air to be helpful;

  • Sudden and unexpected turbulence during a flight
  • Rapid decompression in the air, similar to the incident with Alaska Airlines flight
  • Falling out of a parent’s lap
  • Emergency landing or abrupt deceleration
  • Sudden and Unexpected Turbulence
  • Aborted Take-off/Rapid Deceleration
  • Emergency Landings
  • Survivable Evacuations
  • Falling out of a parent’s lap