Should the FAA force parents to buy seats for babies and toddlers?

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baby flying rear-facing in car seat on airplane
A rear-facing car seat on the red-eye to JFK. “Just try and recline your seat. I dare you…”

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In case you haven’t yet heard, there is a petition circulating in an effort to end the practice of allowing babies and toddlers less than 2 years old to fly as “lap children” on airplanes in the U.S.  While improving air passenger safety is the most obvious motive behind this petition (airline revenues and product sales could also be suggested), forcing parents to purchase seats for children less than 2 years old is not as simple a solution as many would like to believe. Before a burdensome new “law” is put into effect, I think there are a few other issues that should be addressed.

Label showing this restraint is certified for use in aircraft
Just because you have the label doesn’t mean your child’s car seat will fit in the airplane seat.

FAA-approved car seats–which should not be:

Let’s start with the fundamental challenges of using car seats on airplanes, something many airlines offer no assistance with and frequently dissuade (and occasionally even forbid) passengers from doing. The FAA recommends parents use car seats no wider than 16 inches to ensure a proper fit in airplane seats, yet of all of the numerous FAA-approved car seats made for the U.S. market, only a few are actually 17 inches or less in width. While most car seats 18 inches or less will fit in coach seats, many FAA-approved car seats are significantly wider. Case in point: Consider the Graco Size4Me 65 car seat that measures a whopping 22 inches in width, yet it is FAA-approved for air travel.  (See recommended car seats for travel here, and read more about one noteworthy exception less than 16 inches wide here).

Knee (and neck) defenders:

For children less than 1 year old, the FAA already recommends that their car seats be installed rear-facing just as they are in automobiles, and for infants less than 6 months old, a rear-facing car seat is necessary to ensure they have a proper recline to support their developing neck muscles. Depending on the car seat and the ever-diminishing knee room on airplanes, it may be impossible for a passenger to recline his own seat with a car seat behind him.

So what happens if a parent who has paid full price for a seat for his 6-month-old discovers onboard that the FAA-approved car seat does not fit in the seat he’s paid for? Or a passenger who has paid full price for his own seat discovers he cannot recline it because there is a car seat behind him? These scenarios have already been unfolding on airplanes for years, and often with unhappy outcomes. Will the airlines be ready to deal with these situations and customer complaints on a much more frequent basis?

Implications for international travel:

Elsewhere in the world, some airlines actually forbid the rear-facing installation of car seats while others do not allow car seats to be used onboard whatsoever and may even charge parents to check the car seat during a flight (international travelers can read up on these “Exceptional Airlines” in Travels with Baby). Families with connecting flights served by carriers from different countries could face even more complications surrounding the car seat they bring with them—or don’t. It is already a concern whether or not a car seat made for the U.S. market is considered “legal” in other countries (not so in Germany, U.K., or Australia, to name a few), and often renting a car seat certified to the local standards is advisable (see the Worldwide Directory of Baby Gear Rental Agencies here).

So what do you think?

Should the FAA force parents to purchase seats for babies and toddlers less than 2 years old?

RelateTravels with Babyd posts and pages:

What can you do when your child’s car seat doesn’t fit in the airplane seat?

Five ways airlines can make happier travelers of us all?

The best car seats and car seat accessories for travel

Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks

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