So you’ve planned the big trip: the luggage is picked out, you know what outfits the kids will be wearing, you know what snacks everyone will be eating on the plane, but you don’t know what to do about carseats.  Traveling with kids isn’t easy.  So many things can go wrong.  But with a little planning, your trip can be a breeze and when you settle into your seat on the plane, you’ll wonder why you spent so much time obsessing and worrying about the trip in the first place.

Last May, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a Safety Alert urging parents to buy separate airplane seats for all children and to use appropriate child safety restraints for those kids.  Unfortunately, children under age 2 are permitted to ride as “lap babies” for free on planes.  Everything else on the plane—tray tables, beverage carts, coffee pots—are required to be secured during takeoff and landing and whenever the pilot has the seatbelt sign on.  However, these lap babies are only secured by their parents’ arms.  In severe turbulence, which cannot be predicted (can you see an air pocket in the sky?), unbuckled passengers and flight attendants have been thrown against the ceiling and injured, sometimes severely.  In survivable crashes or runway incidents, unbuckled children become projectiles, just like in your vehicle, but at much higher speeds.  There is a device, the Baby B’Air, that tethers a lap baby to the parent’s seatbelt, but it is not approved for takeoff or landing.  In an emergency, a parent using the Baby B’Air will be asked to put the child on the ground, wrapped in a blanket, so the parent can assume the brace position.

Let’s review a simplified equation that every child passenger safety technician has tattooed to the backs of their eyelids: force = weight x speed .  If your child weighs 25 lbs. and your plane is traveling at 150 mph, your child exerts a force of 3750 lbs.  Can your arms secure 3750 lbs. of weight in a crash situation?  No, hence the need for your child’s carseat to do the restraining.

Granted, these are extreme forces, but the main reason we restrain in a plane is for security against turbulence.  There are survivable crashes and runway incidents, but they are few and far between.  You don’t want your child flying against the ceiling of the plane and getting a severe concussion or worse.  Think about your sanity (and that of the passengers around you)!  Your arms and lap will be free and your child will be restrained, just like in the car, further reinforcing to your child that whenever any vehicle is in motion, he is buckled up.  You will also have a good restraint to use at your destination.  If you need more convincing,  the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA advocates the use of child restraints for children under the age of 2 during takeoff, landing, and turbulence as well, though as I mentioned before, how can you predict turbulence?  Just keep your child buckled all the time.

Some facts:

  • According to the FAA, about 58 people per year are injured by turbulence, but that number can go up drastically depending on how many people in the aircraft are actually buckled up during the turbulent event.  Some of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced was when we were over the Pacific Ocean going to New Zealand.  Since we were so high up, I expected a smooth flight, but it was terrible—even worse than going over the Rockies.
  • Most aviation accidents are survivable. The National Transportation and Safety Board reports more than 80 percent of all commercial airline accidents are survivable. In fact, you are 15 times more likely to be involved in a fatal automobile accident than a fatal commercial airline accident.
  • The FAA mandates that “No operator may prohibit a child (an individual who has not reached his or her 18th birthday) from using an approved CRS when the parent or guardian purchases a seat for the child, the child is accompanied by a parent or guardian and the child is within the weight limits for the CRS.”

How should you position the carseat in the airplane?  Just like you would in a vehicle.  If it’s rear-facing in a vehicle, rear-face it in the plane; however, if your child is over age 1 and over 20 lbs., be prepared for the possibility that you may need to install the seat forward-facing (if it’s a convertible).  Since turbulence is an up and down force vs. the forward force of a typical crash, installing a convertible carseat forward-facing for a toddler likely won’t make a difference other than in comfort.  Some of the larger convertibles are difficult to install rear-facing on airplanes with tighter pitches (distances between airplane seats) and may interfere with the recline of the seat in front, but an offer to buy a drink or snack may smooth over any hard feelings over not being able to recline the seatback.  Still, it may be easier to just install the convertible on the plane forward-facing if your child is over age 1 and weighs more than 20 lbs.

But what if your child is over age 2 and is big enough to use the plane’s seatbelt without a restraint?  How do you know if your child is big enough to go without a restraint on the plane?  Well, generally when a child is around 40 lbs., he’s big enough to use the plane’s seatbelt, especially if the seatbelt is anchored forward of the bight.  What’s that you say?  That’s tech talk meaning that the seatbelt comes out of the plane seat a few inches in front of the crack of the seat.  The seat belt will sit low across his thighs, just like it does on you.  This is all a good thing if your child is over age 4 and mature enough to use a booster because you can carry on a backless booster and use it at your destination.  But what do you do if your child still needs a harnessed seat because he’s wiggly or flops over when he sleeps in the car?  What if he’s floppy on the plane and slides under the seatbelt?

You can still use an FAA-approved harnessed carseat on the plane, even if your child is over 40 lbs., if your seat has a higher weight harness.  The label will have red lettering on it as shown below; make sure you know where it is on the seat so you can find it quickly to show airline personnel should they ask to see it.  My experience with one airline was that the gate personnel asked to see the sticker, then the flight attendant at the plane doorway asked to see it too.  A flight attendant also got overly worried when we brought a backless booster on board as a carry-on, thinking we were going to use it during the flight, but I reassured her it was going under the seat in front of my son.  There’s also a specialty harness made exclusively for airplane use called the CARES harness.  I reviewed it and while it doesn’t have a crotch strap to keep a child from intentionally sliding under the lap belt, the harness does a good job of restraining a child on a plane.

See Part 2 of this blog to help guide you with seat selection should you decide to purchase a carseat for travel.