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

Home » Air Travel » What can you do if your child’s car seat doesn’t fit in the airplane seat?

As discussed in the post “Will your car seat be allowed on the airplane?”, whenever boarding an airplane you should be ready and able to point to the FAA approval on your car seat (side or bottom label) or in your car seat’s manual in some cases.

(Pssst! Remember there’s ALL kinds of help and advice in How to Travel with a Car Seat (without Losing Your Mind) and in the Flying with a Car Seat section in Flying with a Baby or a Toddler: Welcome to the Best Tips Online. More helpful posts and pages are linked at the bottom of this page.)

But even if you car seat is approved for air travel, you might suddenly find yourself in a situation known to many veteran family travelers – the same car seat that fit in the last airplane you took doesn’t fit this time around. (Board early just in case!)

It’s easy to get frustrated. Especially as you struggle to get the seat into place while shielding your child from other passengers hoisting lead-weight carry-on bags over your heads and flight attendants urge you to either get that car seat in place or gate-check it so everyone can get on their way.

Not long ago, a mom who tried to stand her ground about using her child’s car seat was even told to get off the plane altogether.

I hope you never find yourself in a tough situation like this, but in case you do it will be helpful to know your rights—and a couple of tips ahead of time that may help you avoid having to exercise them.

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How can you avoid getting stuck with a car seat that doesn’t fit in the airplane seat?

1)   Never fly with a car seat over 18” wide. A width of no more than 16” is recommended by the FAA but is practically non-existent among car seats. See recommendations in Best Infant Car Seats for Travel and the Best Toddler Car Seats for Travel. (Also, check out the 14.5″ W WAYB Pico folding car seat for kids 2 yrs+ – see my full review of the WAYB Pico here.)

2) Some infant car seats have bases that exceed this, but most can also be installed safely with the airplane’s lap safety belt without their bases. See your manual for instructions so you’ll be ready and comfortable with the procedure.

3) Raise the airplane seat’s arm rests if possible to make it easier to install the car seat with the lap safety belt. Since car seats usually go in window seats, this only allows for 1 movable arm rest, though bulkhead rows may not have any movable arm rests.

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4) Use a car seat with a narrow footprint and raised base to ease installation between arm rests with the safety belt.

5) This one may sound obvious, but in the 11th hours of getting everyone and everything ready and TO the airport and THROUGH the airport, it can be easy to forget. Remove any removable arm rests or cup holders before you bring the car seat aboard.

6) If you want or need to install your child’s car seat rear-facing, reserve bulkhead seats to ensure an adequate degree of recline without running into a forward passenger’s seat—but make certain you follow point one above since arm rests on bulkhead rows typically cannot be raised to allow for extra room.

What if the car seat still doesn’t fit?

If the bottom line is that your child’s car seat simply won’t fit as needed in the original seat you have purchased, don’t panic.

According to an advisory circular from the Federal Aviation Administration issued last September, the airline is obliged to help you find a seat that will work for your FAA-approved car seat—provided it’s in the same class of service (no first-class upgrades for bringing big car seats onboard, sorry).

Here’s the actual text:

f. Operators Prohibiting CRS [child restraint system or car seat] Use. No aircraft operator may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS when the parent/guardian purchases a seat for the child. If an approved CRS, for which a ticket has been purchased, does not fit in a particular seat on the aircraft, the aircraft operator has the responsibility to accommodate the CRS in another seat in the same class of service. The regulations also permit an aircraft operator to use its discretion in identifying the most appropriate forward-facing passenger seat location, considering safe operating practices. For example:
(1) A CRS with a base that is too wide to fit properly in a seat with rigid armrests can be moved to a seat with moveable armrests that can be raised to accommodate the CRS.
(2) An aft-facing CRS that can not be installed properly, because of minimal pitch (distance between seats) between rows, can be moved to a bulkhead seat or a seat in a row with additional pitch.

Of course, if the car seat won’t fit in any seat in coach, you will still be obliged to gate-check it for the flight (see recommended Car Seat Travel Bags and Carriers here). But in case there is another viable option for seating in your class, it’s up to the airline to help you—and possibly other passengers—make the switch

What’s an easier (and less stressful!) alternative?

If your child is 1 year or older and has her own reserved airplane seat, you could use the CARES flight safety restraint instead of a car seat. 

You can see my full review of the CARES child aviation restraint and photos of how it works for more information, and read other customer reviews of CARES on Amazon.

For more tips on installing car seats in airplanes (and keeping young kids entertained, diapered, and happy in flight), see the On the Go section in Take-Along Travels with Baby.

More helpful posts and pages:

Related travel tips and advice:

Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli
Author of the award-winning guidebooks Travels with Baby and Take-Along Travels with Baby
TravelswithBaby.com    Travels with Baby on Facebook  

All content of this blog (c) Shelly Rivoli

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