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Should you buy your baby a separate seat when flying? Yes, and here’s why.

  • May 21, 2021

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What could happen if you don’t buy a seat for your baby on a plane?

“The truth is that the safest option is to have a child secured using an FAA-approved child restraint system at all times,” says Paulo Alves, a global medical director for MedAire, a security consulting service. “Parents should use the child restraint system beyond takeoff and landing to avoid common injuries such as falling from a parent’s lap or into the aisle.”

Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok in 2017, turbulence caused three babies to be thrown out of their mother’s arms. Their spines reportedly were broken. And in 2014, a baby was flung from its mother’s arms after a United Airlines flight hit severe turbulence.

But parents still take their chances

The Federal Aviation Administration allows kids under 2 to sit in a parent’s lap during the flight. But it strongly urges parents to get babies their own seat with a restraint system. “Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely,” the agency warns. “Especially during unexpected turbulence.”

Why doesn’t the FAA do more?

“By mandating the purchase of the airplane seat, the FAA would be placing an economic burden on the traveling family,” explains Peter Neff, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University’s aerospace department. “As a consequence, the FAA recommends the use of the child restraining seat versus mandating it.”

By “economic burden,” Neff means that parents might not be able to afford to fly and would travel by car, which is statistically more dangerous.

And so parents take their chances. I’ll admit, I was one of them. When my kids were young, I didn’t buy an extra seat. We were lucky to find an empty seat next to us on almost all the flights, which allowed us to strap the baby into an FAA-approved car seat. 

Tara Cannon has also flown with her lap children. And like me, she regrets it.

“I can’t believe that we were so intent on saving money in that short window of time that our kids traveled as lap babies,” says Cannon, who publishes a family travel blog. “In retrospect, I wish it had been required of us to purchase a seat for our children as infants.”

Experts agree: Your baby needs a seat on the plane

William J. McGee, author of the book “Attention All Passengers,” served as the chairman of a DOT subcommittee on child safety in 2010. He says all the experts agree: Babies should be restrained, and in their own seat.   

“There is no junk science on this topic that suggests lap kids are just as safe during turbulence, inflight emergencies, or accidents. So that tells us that this issue is not about safety,” he told me. “It’s about economics.”

But the federal government – particularly the current administration – won’t require babies to have their own seats on a plane. So until it does, what should happen? 

First, if you’re a parent of a young child, please buy a seat for your offspring. Yes, it will cost more. But so does taking your baby to the hospital after an emergency landing. It’s just not worth the risk, however small.

“From a safety perspective, if the coffee pots need to be strapped down on a plane, why shouldn’t my precious cargo?” asks Melissa Conn, a frequent flier and mother of two young children who covers car seats and safety for her blog.

Short of regulation, the airlines can help, too. But the airline industry can do more by offering a standard, infant fare for your young child. Plenty of responsible parents would book them, if they had the opportunity.

And that’s really what it comes down to – personal responsibility. The government has a responsibility to protect our youngest passengers. One day, it will. Until then, parents and airlines can help make flying a little safer.

How you can make a difference

If you’re not flying with a young child, you can still help. Here’s how:

If you’re seated next to a family with young children, offer to move. If there’s an empty seat, you can move to it, allowing the family to strap in their newborn’s child carrier. (As a benefit, you won’t have to put up with the inevitable crying.)

Write to your representative. Write to your member of Congress to request a review of child safety seat requirements on commercial airplanes. The FAA has the power to regulate this important issue. With enough public pressure, it will.

Leave your opinion. The FAA conducts periodic rulemakings relating to passenger safety. You can find details on the agency’s website. As a member of the public, you can sound off about this safety problem.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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