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. 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.
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-ons 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 (yes, we pay for this service). 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.
1) Never fly with a car seat over 18” wide (16” is recommended by the FAA but practically non-existent among car seats). Some infant car seats have bases that exceed this, but most can also be installed safely without their bases using the airplane safety belt (see your manual).
2) Use a car seat with a narrow footprint and raised base to ease installation between arm rests with the safety belt.
3) 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.
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. But in case there is another viable option, it’s up to the airline to help you—and possibly other passengers—make the switch.
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.
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