FAA regulations don’t fly, say safety experts

Watchdog group says requiring safety seats on planes would save lives


Stacey Harms and Cheryl Winkelman


A 9-month-old infant seated on her mother’s lap sustained fatal head injuries during a 1994 airplane crash in North Carolina when she flew out of her mother’s arms.

The child’s mother, who was wearing her seat belt during the accident, survived.

The infant was the third “lap baby” in 7 years to be fatally injured during flight turbulence, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Since 1990, that watchdog group has urged the Federal Aviation Administration to pass regulations requiring one level of safety for all passengers, no matter what size or age. In 1999, the FAA committed to making child restraints mandatory on all flights. But it has yet to actually issue such a federal regulation.

While the FAA requires that adults and children over the age of 2 be buckled in during takeoff, turbulence or landing—even coffee pots must be stowed away—there are no federal regulations for restraining infants.

“I don’t think a child of any age or size should be unrestrained,” says Dr. H. Garry Gardner, a DuPage County pediatrician who served on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on injury and poison prevention.

Gardner says a baby can be thrown to the plane’s ceiling just as food can fly off a cart during turbulence, the leading cause of injury on flights.

In addition to the NTSB, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Flight Attendants have been lobbying the FAA for years to set federal regulations for infants.

‘Unacceptable’ response In November of 2004, the NTSB voted to classify the FAA’s refusal to require infants to be buckled in as “unacceptable” and kept the need for child safety restraints on its most wanted safety improvement list.

“We have an ongoing dialog with the FAA,” says NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm. “As a rule, they accept 80 percent of our recommendations. In some areas, they just don’t agree.”

Instead, the FAA has an educational campaign about child safety on airplanes, consisting of public service announcements on television and radio and a redesigned Web site with tips on how to use child safety seats when flying.

Still, FAA regulations continue to allow children under 2 to sit on a parent’s lap, meaning parents can avoid buying another plane ticket. However, the FAA suggests—as does the American Academy of Pediatrics—that children under 20 pounds sit in a rear-facing child seat and children between 20 and 40 pounds sit in a forward-facing child seat.

In an online brochure, the FAA “strongly urges” parents to secure children in an appropriate safety seat: “ ... the safest place for your child is in a [child restraint system],” the brochure reads, “not in an adult’s lap. Your arms just aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially when turbulence is unexpected.”

The FAA says children who weigh more than 40 pounds can sit in airline seats and use the regular lap belts.

Economic impact “We agree with everyone that the safest place [for a child] is in a child safety seat,” says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. “[But] we have to consider the economic impact on families.”

She adds that if families have to purchase costly airline tickets for their infants, they may elect to drive instead of fly, a riskier form of transportation.

According to Rae Tyson, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there is a 25 percent greater fatality rate in automobiles than in airplanes. About 42,000 people die annually in autos nationwide. “In many years, there are no fatalities in the air,” he says.

Each airline sets its own policy for infant passengers. Most allow infants to ride on an adult’s lap free of charge on domestic flights. They differ, however, in terms of the purchase of infant seating.

Though Delta Airlines does not provide infant safety seats, parents can bring their own and place the infant in the seat next to them for free, provided the seat is unoccupied.

“If you want to guarantee a seat [for your child], you must buy one in advance,” says Delta spokesman Anthony Banks.

Many airlines, such as Southwest, offer discounted fares for infants, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the related adult fare.

However, having to buy a seat would prevent Yorkville resident Chandelle Gilson from flying with her 8-month-old son.

“I wouldn’t see the sense in having an extra seat for a baby,” says Gilson, who recently flew with her son to New York. 

Gilson, 31, says even if the adjacent seat were unoccupied, she would keep her son George in her lap.

“At his age, [I] like to hold him,” she explains.

But Michelle and Matt Witzky prefer to buckle in their daughter Lauren. At 3 months, she is already a frequent flyer, having been on four plane rides.

The Witzkys, of Vernon Hills, bring their baby seat with them to use if the flight is not full.

“If there’s a space, they’ve been pretty nice and let us take the seat on the plane,” says Michelle Witzky, adding that the couple would buy the baby a ticket if the FAA mandated it.

“None of our family lives around here,” she says, “so we have to fly.” 

Stacey Harms is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Cheryl Winkelman recently graduated. They wrote this for the Medill News Service.


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