When can kids safely fly without a car seat on airplanes?

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car seat on airplane
Tip: If you will frequently use car seats on airplanes, make sure you get a great car seat for travel. Here, the Sit N Stroll has converted from stroller to car seat mode, easily buckles in around the seat (not behind it) with a seat belt extension, and includes a sun canopy, which works well for blocking out reading lights and drafts during red-eye flights.

With so much in the works around here recently (great stuff! I know I keep hinting, but I promise a big reveal soon…), the sixth birthday of this blog flew by without ceremony. What seems even more amazing, is that I purchased the TravelswithBaby.com website nine years ago, where I first began addressing travel with babies and toddlers.

In that time, one of the most frequent topics I’ve visited and revisited has been the use of car seats on airplanes. In honor of Child Passenger Safety Week, I thought I should take a look at air travel specifically, and include a list of links to my most helpful tips and advice on using car seats on airplanes so far (see below and see new Flying with a Baby or Toddler Advice Index).

Praise for Shelly Rivoli's Travels with Baby guidebook for parents

But where kids in car seats on the ground are subject to state and provincial laws, kids in the clouds are subject to a rather vague set of standards and suggestions.

Adding to the confusion, car seat rules can even very by airline should a particular carrier make its own rule about the use of car seats on its aircraft. (For example, Ryanair only allows forward-facing car seats on its flights. More here.)

With so much talk, and even controversy, about whether or not parents should use car seats on airplanes, I thought we should also take a moment to address that lingering question. When can kids fly safely without a car seat?

When can kids safely fly without a car seat?

Well, the simple answer is at 1 year old and 22+ lbs — IF they are using the CARES flight safety 4-point harness in their own airplane seat (see details and photos in my full CARES review here).

Remember, passenger safety issues in an airplane are different from what they are in a car, with turbulence being the number one cause of injuries to passengers of all ages.

For now, the FAA states that children over 40 lbs. (18 kg.) are considered big enough to safely fly in their seats without a car seat (CRS) or the CARES child aviation restraint–though the CARES restraint is rated up to 44 lbs.

If you’d rather not take your child’s car seat onto the airplane, most airlines will allow you to check it at the gate for free. It’s much safer to check your car seat there than through the airport baggage system if possible. See Seven Easy Ways to Get Your Car Seat Through the Airport for tips and consider these Best Car Seat Travel Bags and Carriers for more.

If you’d rather not take your car seat to or through the airport at all, consider these options:

But what about booster seats on airplanes?

While boosters may be required for increasingly older children around the world in an effort to keep shoulder safety belts off of their necks (which may, ironically, put the shoulder belt below their shoulder in some vehicles), there are no shoulder belts in coach seats at this time.

That’s why safety booster seats, which are designed to be used only with shoulder safety belts are not needed on airplanes. But they are also not usually permitted to be used on airplanes during all phases of flight (you might get away with it during the cruise portion). Even if they would help your child see out the window during your flight.

Side Notes on Safety

Personally, I think it would be helpful for parents to have more information about the effectiveness of the brace position for children in the event of an emergency landing. For example, at what point (or height) are your child’s odds better if she can tuck and brace rather than sit with shoulders fixed to the airplane seat or car seat behind them with a safety harness, where she is more vulnerable to items that might be flying around the cabin?

But since no two airplane emergency landings (a.k.a. crash landings) are the same, I realize it may be difficult to find conclusive evidence for this. I will be asking and looking, and please feel free to contact me if you know of any good sources for this I may have missed.

Need more tips for using car seats on airplanes?

Get airline-specific advice:

And I know there will continue to be more! For more flying with baby, toddler, and preschooler tips and advice, be sure to bookmark this page

Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli

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