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

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

by Shelly Rivoli
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…”

Join the conversation! Please, share your own thoughts on this with a comment below this post.

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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Spencer Wheelwright (Family Explorers) October 1, 2014 - 11:54 am

Fortunately, the current number of signatures on the petition seems to indicate that this will never make it. It’s a flawed proposal, though, considering all of the problems that may arise as a result of requiring car seats.

I do agree that lap child safety stands to be improved. When we’ve traveled on non-US airlines with our four boys, we’ve often been lent a seat belt attachment for a lap child. This is a pretty good option, and I’m not sure why the US airlines don’t offer it (probably cost?).

In any case, allowing lap children really needs to continue to be an option–when traveling with a newborn, a crying baby really may just need to be held, and the safety can reside in the hands of the parent.

Shelly Rivoli October 2, 2014 - 9:28 am

Spencer, those safety belts (aka belly belts), which some airlines will actually REQUIRE you to use for your lap child, were banned in the U.S. some time ago. Yes, babies are safer without? Really? Still waiting for the evidence on that. Fortunately there is the Baby B’Air vest that can be used during the cruising part of the flight at least, which may not help much in a crash landing, but does help protect against turbulence which is a far more common occurrence. http://www.travelswithbaby.com/gear/car_seats_alternatives.htm

Robin October 1, 2014 - 9:53 am

I’m seriously of two minds about it. Having just bought 4 tickets to India, now that my daughter is 2, it seriously hurt. I flew with her as an 18 month old lap child to Argentina and a 23 month old as a lap so I could squeeze in one more trip home. Now, I will fly and see family less because of the increased cost. However, I would be the first to tell you that 18 and 23 months was too big for a lap child. They move too much and are not in anyway safe since they are not strapped in. I think some where between 12 and 18 months I would understand why they would require a seat. But at that age, they won’t really stay in thier seat (my 2 year old barely does). So what happens then? Require a car seat? CARES? Will they now offer child restraints?

Below a year, babies generally are really comfortable and relatively safe in a carrier such as an Ergo or sling (drives me crazy that TSA says it’s not safe for take off or landing. It’s safer than my arms for sure). I don’t think it’s fair to require a seat unless they are going to also provide a restraint system included in the ticket price.

Shelly Rivoli October 2, 2014 - 9:22 am

Thanks for making these important points! I’ll never forget meeting a couple that was flying to introduce their TRIPLETS to Grandma and Grandpa in India before their 2nd birthday. They still had to buy 1 or 2 seats, but even still, those airlines offering infant or child discounts can make a tremendous difference in the comfort of MANY passengers onboard, not to mention safety, by making it more affordable to buy those seats for small children. (I am passionate about that, and that’s why I still include the airlines with infant discounts in the Travels with Baby guidebook). 😉 Also, there are some non-U.S. airlines that will provide a CRS for small passengers, but the cash-strapped and cramped airlines here I doubt would ever commit to having those available, when some will not even provide infant bassinets/skycots for overseas flights.

tripswithtykes October 1, 2014 - 9:35 am

I’m always on the fence when it comes to this question. We’ve almost always bought a seat for our little ones because most of our travel is cross-country. That is just too long to hold a baby much older than 6 months old, especially if you have a feisty one (like our oldest). And on flights where we’ve had real turbulence, it has been such a comfort to know my kids are as safe as they can be in their own seats strapped in.

I’ve always wondered whether there is any talk of rolling the age for lap children back to under age 1 as a compromise between all the competing interests – costs, safety, & comfort. As airline seats get smaller and smaller, it is a bit nuts (and pretty unfair to seatmates) to have a 23 month old on your lap. They are just too big and too squirmy. At that age, most children are big enough for the CARES harness (22 lb minimum) and the airlines could have those stocked on board for passenger use instead of car seats. They are very lightweight and wouldn’t have the storage or seat-blocking problems that car seats do.

Shelly Rivoli October 2, 2014 - 9:30 am

Rolling the age back to 1 is an interesting idea! I’m not sure how that would work out in the big picture since the 2 year cutoff is globally accepted, and international bookings between different carriers might be a nightmare, but I think you make a good point.

Catherine October 1, 2014 - 7:45 am

Pros of having a child in his/her own seat: safety and parent’s comfort. Cons: cost, comfort for child, if he/she needs comforting during keep-your-seatbelt fastened time which is now most of the flight duration, tough luck and his/her cries will go crescendo for the pleasure of all as the parent is not supposed to pick him/her up then

Shelly Rivoli October 1, 2014 - 8:51 am

Good points, Catherine. I can also remember some flights where the car seat sat next to me empty while I was nursing/soothing a baby most of the flight. Good to have the Baby B’air vest for lapchild safety even if/when you have a seat!

Amy K. September 30, 2014 - 6:47 pm

I’m not a frequent traveler, but I don’t mind lap babies. I feel that plane trips are just something to be endured; sometimes it’s relaxing and sometimes it’s not.

I never brought a carseat on a plane when my kids were smaller. I would not have done well with being forced to use one. I preferred having more room for them to stretch out. Our son was especially large and I remember that when he was 16 months old, we did spring for a seat for him for a transcontinental flight even when we were not required to do so.

Shelly Rivoli September 30, 2014 - 8:18 pm

Amy, I think you have a healthier attitude than most travelers today! It’s amazing how many people complain at the smallest inconvenience in flight, when you consider the huge convenience of flying cross-country vs. driving–or taking Amtrak, which would take even longer! 😉

traveloggedblog September 30, 2014 - 6:32 pm

I signed the petition because I truly believe that it is safer to have the baby in the carseat while flying. I almost always bought a seat for my son. But, we flew a lot and there were a few times I didn’t. With my 6-month-old daughter, I’m now facing buying 4 tickets if I were to buy her a seat — that’s expensive! So if it’s not the law, I’d probably risk it from time to time. But I do think that it should be the law… Also, I rarely did rear-facing with our carseat. I think that for the FAA to require that would be a little extreme.

Shelly Rivoli September 30, 2014 - 8:17 pm

I hear you re: buying 4 tickets. Now that we are FIVE tickets per family flight, I feel like we should get some sort of family discount–especially when my kids are usually behaved better than many other passengers! 😉 We also bring the avg. luggage per passenger ratio down, which should count for something now that airplane weight is considered such a big deal (not to mention, they take up much less space themselves than the avg. passenger)

Traci September 30, 2014 - 11:54 am

Wow, definitely a lot of potential glitches, I agree!

While I would never dream of reclining my own seat if a baby, small child or parent caring for small children were behind me, unfortunately others are not as considerate. This seat reclining thing is getting quite out of hand lately, too. And the different sized seats you mention is a big consideration as well. What a nightmare it would be to show up and discover your seat won’t fit!

On the other hand, traveling with babies on the lap is just not safe. I did it once, and said never again! Plus, it can be very disruptive to your seat mate’s comfort as well.

Shelly Rivoli September 30, 2014 - 12:33 pm

Yes, I would think most solo/business travelers would rather have a baby behind them and not be able to recline than to have one on a lap beside them and recline all they like. 😉

Comments are closed.

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