Flight attendants want to ban lap babies on planes


When the seat belt light comes on, all passengers buckle up except for a group of aviators: lap babies. Unbelted children who share a seat with their parents are exempt from the safety order a growing concern over recent incidents of severe turbulence.

“We’ve recently seen planes go through turbulence and plummet 4,000 feet in a split second,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “The G-forces are something that not even the most loving mother or father can protect themselves from and hold their child. It’s just physically impossible.”

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The union is pushing for a rule change that would require all passengers, regardless of age, to sit in an airplane seat with a restraint system. Currently, children under the age of 2 can fly on their parents’ laps for free.

“Unfortunately, this has been a priority for our union for more than 30 years.”

— Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA

The AFA-CWA raised the issue at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Safety Summit in Northern Virginia on Wednesday and submitted its list of priorities to Congress, including “a seat for every soul.” Legislators are in the process of creating an FAA relicensing law that expires in September. The union made the same recommendation during the last round of readmissions in 2018.

The tragedy that afflicts Nelson happened in 1989 when United Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. Per protocol, flight attendants instructed parents to wrap their unbelted babies in blankets and place them on the floor. Three of the infants were injured and one died.

“Unfortunately, this has been a priority for our union for more than 30 years,” Nelson said. “We need to have children safely on the plane and in their own seats with an appropriate restraint system to ensure something like this never happens again.”

In 1994, the debate revived when a little girl, sitting on her mother’s lap, was killed in a USAair crash in Charlotte.

“It’s safest if everyone is held down,” said Ben Hoffman, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to the FAA’s Civil Air Regulation Section 40.174, “a seat and individual seat belt are required for each passenger and crew member, excluding infants, who are in a position other than a recumbent position.”

Over the years, a variety of organizations and experts have contested the wisdom of this regulation, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.

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Many overseas airlines allow parents to (loosely) secure their child with a waist belt that wraps around the baby’s torso and attaches to the adult’s seat belt. However, the FAA bans this accessory for US airlines because of its potential hazards.

“During dynamic testing, the adult and child’s forward thrashing resulted in severe body impacts against the front seat,” the agency said in a circular addressing the extra belt.

Hoffman said the safest option is for parents to buy a seat for their baby or toddler and secure it in an FAA-approved child restraint system (or car seat, in parent slang). The agency has also certified a harness-like device called the Child Aviation Restraint System, or CARES, which the company AmSafe recommends for children weighing 20 to 40 pounds.

Interestingly, the FAA agrees with this position. In its “Flying with Children” overview, the agency states: “The safest place for your child under the age of two on a US aircraft is in an approved child restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap. Your arms are unable to securely hold your child on your lap, especially during unexpected turbulence, which is the number one cause of injury to children on an airplane.”

The International Air Transport Association Best Practices Guide also recommends that parents place their children in a restraint approved by the country’s safety agency and the airline. However, the association concedes: “If the responsible person does not provide an approved child restraint system or the CRS is not accepted according to airline policy or government regulations, the child should be held by a responsible person.”

Hoffman recognizes the disadvantages of parents having to buy airline tickets for their children. The main concern is that families will not be able to afford the flight and will resort to driving, a more dangerous mode of transport.

“If they travel by car instead, they’re actually putting themselves at significantly greater risk because car accidents are so much more common than plane incidents, whether it’s a crash or turbulence,” Hoffman said.

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To underscore his point, he cited a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics that assessed the risks to children when families switch from air to car travel. The researchers found that if just 5 to 10 percent of travelers took to the road instead of flying, the number of infant deaths from car accidents would likely exceed the number of deaths prevented by the requirement for child restraint systems on airplanes would.

“Unless families can affordably provide space for young children in restraint seats, with little or no diversion to drive, a policy requiring the use of restraint seats could result in a net increase in deaths,” the researchers concluded.

Hoffman said the best solution for airlines is to discount tickets for young travelers. “It would be great if the airline provided a mechanism to support parents and not charge the full fare,” he said. “But the current system is unaffordable for many families.”

Colleen Lanin, the founder and editor of TravelMamas.com, flew once with her child on her lap and never again. Concerned about putting her children at risk, she decided to invest in seats for her daughter and son on later flights.

She first used an FAA-approved car seat, which was safer but not hassle-free: On a flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St. Paul, a helpful passenger, had the equipment secured to the plane seat so tightly that she could not remove it at its final destination. The airline had to call security for help. When her children could sit independently, she used a CARES harness, which is significantly lighter and less bulky than a car seat that can be tediously lugged through the airport.

“Pay for the extra seat. It makes your life so much easier,” said Lanin, whose children are now teenagers. “If you can’t afford that ticket, find a cheaper flight, or fly to a closer destination, or fly at odd times.”

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Some parents have discovered temporary reprieve when holding their babies on long-haul flights. When their youngest daughter was a baby, Wanderlust Storytellers founders Jolene and Andrzej Ejmont reserved a baby cot, a convenience often available on international flights. However, during takeoff, landing and stretches of bumpy air, the Ejmonts had to hold down Avalee-Rose, who is now 7 years old.

“During minor turbulences, the [flight attendants] would take off the cradle, and we would have to take it out, back in, out, in,” said Andrei. “It was very annoying.”

The couple also secured Avalee-Rose in a stretcher worn like a breast pocket. “It felt safer because she was always with me, buckled up,” said Ejmont, whose family of five lives in Australia and spends about half the year traveling. But like the bassinet, the airline requires parents to take their babies out during certain maneuvers and conditions.

Hoffman warns that the carrier is not foolproof, especially in severe turbulence. “The kid can slip out because of all that force. A plane plummeting 4,000 feet in a matter of seconds is like being shot out of a cannon. A front pocket will not do the same thing as a car seat.”

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