The issue of how to best handle flying with kids and their carseats is something that comes up repeatedly on the Car-Seat.org forum. Many safety-conscious parents will bring the carseat with them knowing that their child will need to use it once they reach their destination. I applaud all those parents for doing the right thing! However, for a variety of reasons, most parents don’t actually bring the carseat onto the plane and use it for their child during the flight. I suspect that many of those checked seats that I see on the baggage carousel belong to children who wound up as lap babies on the flight. For the record, here at CarseatBlog we always recommend that you buy a ticket for your child (regardless of their age), bring their carseat and use it on the plane.
Regardless of why parents chose to check their carseats, the fact remains that most travelers flying with child safety seats in tow, do check them instead of lugging them through security and using them on the plane. And seats checked with regular luggage probably get tossed around and manhandled the same way luggage does. I somehow doubt that the baggage handlers suddenly look at the seat and decide to handle it with care so they don’t crack the EPS foam, know what I mean?
But what if you’ve already traveled with your carseat and checked it? Perhaps even multiple times? Is it still safe to use? That’s the controversy.
There are some child passenger safety advocates that will argue that a checked carseat could have sustained significant damage during the time it was out of your sight and should be replaced as a precaution. Some might actually go so far as to suggest that the checked carseat is now “as good as crashed”. I personally think that stance is a little over the top but I understand the logic behind those opinions. I’ve seen how beat-up my luggage is sometimes when I reach my destination. Plus, many frequent flyers have witnessed first-hand some of the abuse that luggage endures as it’s loaded and unloaded from the aircraft.
What we’ve lacked in the past is any type of official policy or statement from the CR Manufacturers regarding checked carseats. The instruction manuals are full of do’s and don’ts and even show us how to install the [harnessed] carseat properly using the lap-only belt on the aircraft. But there has been absolutely no attention given to encouraging use of the CR on the plane, and subsequently no mention of what you should or shouldn’t do if you’re flying but not planning to bring the carseat on board.
The Manufacturers Alliance for Child Passenger Safety issued a statement for CPS Technicians/Instructors on the subject:
Car Seats Gate-Checked or Checked as Luggage
Car seats are designed to withstand most motor vehicle crash forces. In general, the MACPS does not consider a gate-checked car seat or a car seat that is checked as luggage to be one that has experienced forces equivalent to a motor vehicle crash. Once the destination is reached, it is recommended to inspect the car seat to make sure no visual damage has occurred and all aspects of the car seat function properly.
I think that’s certainly a reasonable policy but I would really like to see all CR Manufacturers take it a step further and include language in the instruction manuals that encourages the use of the CR on the plane and discourages checking it with regular luggage. Gate-checking the carseat should be encouraged if and when it isn’t possible to use it on board the aircraft for the child. If nothing else, a gate-checked seat is much less likely to be lost than a seat that was checked with luggage.
I appreciate that the MACPS has taken the time to address the issue. I trust that they looked at the issues seriously. I’m not a carseat engineer, nor do I play one on TV, so I’m going to defer to them on this issue and trust that they know what their products can withstand.
On this end of the table, we’re going to continue to advocate for securing children in aircraft with the same passion and dedication that we have for securing them in motor vehicles. With that in mind, let’s list the top DO’s and DON’Ts of flying with kids and carseats.
- DO buy a plane ticket for your child, even if they are under age 2. Lap babies can be seriously injured during turbulence and in cases where emergency maneuvers are required (aborted take-offs, emergency landings, etc.)
- DO use an FAA-approved child restraint with a 5-point harness for kids under 40 lbs.
- DO bring your child’s carseat to the gate even if your child is under age 2 and you haven’t purchased a separate seat for them. Most flight attendants will make every effort to seat you next to an empty seat (if the flight isn’t full) in order to accommodate your properly restrained child.
- DO gate-check the carseat if it’s not possible to bring it on board and use it for your child. Items that are gate-checked have less opportunity to be mishandled and are much less likely to be missing when you land.
- DO know your rights! Well-intentioned but misinformed flight attendants can ruin even the best laid travel plans so be prepared!
- DON’T check your carseat with your regular luggage if you can help it.
- DON’T rely on car rental companies to provide an appropriate child restraint. There have been too many horror stories over the years regarding outdated, dirty or lack of available appropriate seats.
- DO your homework and read our previous blogs on kids, carseats & airplanes:
Check out our related blog posts on flying with kids and carseats:
Lap Babies on Airplane – A Warning All Parents Must See
Flying with a Car Seat? Know Your Rights!
Recommended Carseats for Airplane Travel
Myth Busting: We’re All Going to Die in an Airplane Crash Anyway so Why Use a Carseat?
Airplanes, Carseats, and Kids—What You Need to Know Pt. 1
Airplanes, Carseats, and Kids—What You Need to Know Pt. 2
I understand it is safer to have a child in a car seat on the plane. I wonder why so many make the statement that checked in/gate checked =crashed? Where was the original source that started that claim? Was there research? I have no idea how G-force works and would love to see some explanation if you have any. Thanks so much!
Hi Ingrid – to my knowledge, there was never any basis to the checked seat equals crashed seat claim. I think some advocates just like to be dramatic. Lol.
Agreeing with Kecia here. When FB became a thing, so did the checked seat = crashed seat thing. Because it’s so difficult to fact check on FB, it spread quickly because of word of mouth. The manufacturers themselves say, “Car Seats Gate-Checked or Checked as Luggage Car seats are designed to withstand most motor vehicle crash forces. In general, the MACPS does not consider a gate-checked car seat or a car seat that is checked as luggage to be one that has experienced forces equivalent to a motor vehicle crash. Once the destination is reached, it is recommended to inspect the car seat to make sure no visual damage has occurred and all aspects of the car seat function properly. (August 2012)”
Many EU carriers will not allow you to use a standard car seat in-flight, because a standard car seat today would not fit into an economy seat on a number of older/smaller planes. Also, if you have taken at least a couple of flights inside the US, you would know that no carrier will allow you to keep an infant in their car seat during taxi, take-off, touch down, or any kind of turbulence whatsoever (at those times infants have to be held in lap, even if they have their own seat), so the only time when your baby will be allowed in that car seat will be when the plane is cruising in a perfectly stable manner. I have argued with flight attendants until I was blue in the face and they threatened to take me and the baby off the flight, but despite having paid the ridiculous price of a separate seat for my baby for every one of the five flights I took with her while she was under 1, at no point have I been allowed to keep my baby in her car seat during turbulence. On two of the five flights I wasn’t allowed to use the car seat, despite having paid for a separate seat for the child, because the car seat was rear-facing (as it should be for an infant) and that would prevent the passenger in the seat in front from reclining their seat. So on those two flights I paid for a separate seat and ended up having to fly with the baby in my lap and to deal with the flight attendants’ frustration at having to find a place to stash my car seat.
Iana, I’m sorry to hear of your lousy experiences with carseats on airplanes; that’s really frustrating. Flight attendants within the U.S. must allow you to use your carseats during take-off and landing if you’ve paid for a seat. The next time you fly, I’d suggest reading this article and following Jennie’s suggestions: https://carseatblog.com/22134/flying-with-a-car-seat-know-your-rights/. Most flight attendants today are educated on carseats on airplanes, but there still are some who don’t know why and how they should be used.
In general and where financially possible, I’m advocate for buying the under 2 crowd their own seat on a plane; however, if I’m the only adult traveling with two kids and my airline won’t allow two car seats in the same row, I’m not sure what to do. I haven’t been able to find any information about this on any online forums. Can someone point me in the right direction?
As a flight attendant and a mom, I am happy to see a blog ADVOCATING the use of car seats on planes. It boggles my mind why it is not required by the FAA to have babies and kids secured. You are not allowed to have items held on your lap but a child under 2 years is OK. Anyways, please remember that if you are using a car seat, it must have the sticker saying “approved for use in aircraft” in red letters affixed to the seat. If there is no sticker, you can not use it. Boosters are also not allowed. The CARES belt is the best bet. I know at my airline (a major one) does go over the use of these items in our training. Also, the use of ring slings, ERGOS, or any other baby carrier is not allowed during taxi, take off and landing. Another one of those “not FAA approved” items.
Have you tries flying on an airplane with a Britax or Graco carseat? Because I can tell you, they don’t fit in the seats anymore. There are no open seats on planes as they sell out most of the time. The stewardesses don’t care about your carseat, as they will make you check it, because there is no room for them on the airplanes anymore. The seats are smaller, and so are the isles. Check your carseats at with your baggage.
I flew in February 2015 with my son in a Britax Chaperone seat without a problem. I was on a US Air flight from NY to Charlotte (a mid size plane) and a flight from Charlotte to Jackson (an even smaller plane).
I have also flown many, many times (at least 10) with my son’s Britax Roundabout 55. I have never had a problem with it fitting down the aisle or in the seats on multiple airlines and airplanes. We got a strap to attach it to my rolling carry-on so we don’t have to physically carry it through the airport. I’ve even traveled solo with a 3 year old, car seat, rolling bag, and duffel bag.
Great tips and info. We’ve checked our car seat numerous times with no problems – except for the fact that we paid baggage fees and no one corrected our error. I’ve since learned, however, that most airlines will let you check infant gear like car seats for free, yet another reason to bring the seat rather than rent it from a car rental agency. More on that (and a link to the helpful info in this post) here: http://hintmama.com/2013/12/30/todays-hint-instead-of-renting-a-car-seat-check-it-for-free-on-your-next-flight/
What was their controlled crash Claire? Like an on-land or aborted take-off kind of thing? Or up high and crashing in to the ground? Arguably the biggest difference in survival and injury reduction is going to come when comparing emergency stops and the runway crash or aborted take-off kind of things. Get high enough in the air and fall fast enough and far enough and you’re kind of out of luck.
That being said, I’m not terribly surprised given all the hard surfaces and the lap-only belts in them. I imagine even in a minor crash that can cause issues – but it’s better than no belt at all.
They recently did an airplane crash test to see how people suffered injuries in a controlled crash. The results were alarming.
In regards to not being able to see if a seat has hidden damage, I’ve seen pictures of a seat that was damaged due to being checked and the damage is unmistakable. I actually do believe that a carefully inspected seat – assuming the parent was knowledgeable enough to remove the cover and check for broken foam and discoloration in the plastic, would determine if the seat was still safe or not.
That being said, I don’t think any of these comments were intended to make someone feel bad about their own personal choices. I also don’t buy that 1 child’s ticket is the difference between no vacation and a vacation when all of the other expenses of travel are factored in… Kids don’t stay under 2 forever and family vacations are more common as kids get older. But that is kind of besides the point… I just don’t see any need for defensiveness.
Thank you for posting this well-balanced article that shows the various points of view. May we all learn to respect each others’ opinions on the matter, regardless of what choices we make for ourselves and our children.
Personally, I would always take a car seat on the plane for a child who has a plane ticket. If I cannot afford a ticket for an infant, I am OK with gate checking if the flight is full, but I accept the risks involved. I have gate checked an infant seat twice (and a stroller) and in that situation they were handled quite well. In fact, I left my cell phone in the stroller and it fell out (on the Tarmac, I think) and a flight attendant returned it to me!!! I would not, however, check any piece of equipment I couldn’t afford to replace, and I would have a backup plan (know where the nearest Walmart is and how to get a seat to the airport!!) in case the seat turns up missing or destroyed. I’m not under the illusion that nothing bad can happen to a gate-checked item.
And yes, I’m aware that the safest way for the baby to travel on the plane is in a car seat, but I have a hard time taking the “bad mom of the year award” for flying with a lap baby. The statistics just aren’t there to back it up. Yes, a child can be bumped and bruised in bad turbulence. Injuries do happen, but they’re rare and it’s even more rare that they’re life-threatening. There is ONE documented case of a preventable death of a lap baby on a plane in the entire history of the FAA. When I compare that to the alternative, which is to either take a road trip with my entire family “safely” strapped into a death trap known as a “car” or just stay home and not experience a family vacation, I asses the risks and I make that judgment for myself. Sometimes, purchasing one more plane ticket simply isn’t an option financially, and I don’t feel parents should be made to feel guilty for that.
I’m in the camp that agrees enough damage could happen to a checked seat to make it unsafe. Not that it WOULD happen every time, just that it’s an unknown.
But traveling cross country (3 flights 2 connections) alone with a 2 year old and an infant, there wasn’t any way for me to carry / gate check seats either. I had plenty I was already carrying/pushing/pulling. Including 2 humans.
So what I did was buy car seats for my destination (my sister met me at the airport with them so I could install them in the car I rented) since renting car seats is out of the question for me (again because you JUST DON’T KNOW). We used a CARES harness for my daughter on the plane and my lap baby was tightly in a ring sling (which I know isn’t the MOST safe option but was great for any turbulence we may have encountered).
Apparently almost no one uses CARES because I had to educate several flight attendants about it on our 6 flights, and a few had to look it up to make sure it was “approved” (though I assured them it was).
I still think its best to take the seat on board or pack in in a box (save the original) if you’re going to check it. My mom broke the EPS foam on one of my seats by dropping it (in an airport where we hadn’t checked it, ironically). I’ve flown with three kids and three car seats without help while covered in kid barf and not even being allowed to board first, so I suspect most folks can manage to take it on the plane with them.
Somehow I doubt that anything dropped from from “several hundred feet up” would simply be picked up and put on the luggage carousel. Anything falling from that height would have to have fallen from the plane in mid-flight.
The cargo hold is about ten feet up, not several hundred.
Air traffic control towers are by design the tallest structures at an airport. The tallest towers are 3 to 400 feet high – the minimum I’d personally consider “several hundred”. Meanwhile the boarding and cargo doors are at most 20 feet off the ground. Certainly nowhere near 100 feet.
I’ve had things I’ve gate checked come back through the regular luggage system, with an announcement along the lines of “you may pick up your gate checked luggage with your checked luggage at carousel 6.” Watching how some of that stuff comes flying down the conveyors it’s amazing that parents who do it AREN’T alarmed by it. I also don’t understand how the MACPS can unilaterally say that checking it is ok. They can’t guarantee how anything was handled, and a visual inspection might not catch the damage. I think a statement like this gives a false sense of security to parents.
I’ve probably said at some point or another that a checked seat is a crashed seat. I’m a woman–I’m allowed to change my mind, lol! I’m by no means a frequent flyer, but I do fly several times a year and have made several international flights and have yet to see a carseat mishandled by anyone but its owner. The damage that has happened to my luggage and its contents was done by the TSA during their “inspections,” not by baggage handlers. I think that with anything regarding air travel nowadays, whatever is out of your sight must be thoroughly inspected. If it shows signs of damage, that damage should be reported, especially if it’s a safety item. I don’t think that carseats are as fragile as we think they are–if you’ve ever tried to destroy an expired or crashed carseat, you know what I’m talking about. I do wish carseat manufacturers would take a more affirmative stand on the airline use issue in their manuals, like Kecia mentioned, because parents are flying with their children and restraints are recommended to be used by the FAA.
I am completely unconvinced that gate checking unprotected is any better than luggage checking. I’ve had gate checked strollers broken twice, had one come back covered in what looked like motor oil, and had one lost (didn’t make it to my destination with me.)
I’ve also seen them bounce seats off the tarmac from several hundred feet up, pick them up and put them back on the gate check cart. Bottom line, I’d not trust a seat that was gate-checked unprotected (without a good sturdy box and some padding, maybe) with my child’s life in a subsequent crash.
“several hundred feet up”? VIDEO PLEASE!!
Great information, thanks!
Thank you for clearing the air on this one. I’ve seen lots of techs say that checked = crashed. I’m glad to know that it doesn’t and If for some reason I have to gate check a car seat again that I won’t feel bad for having to do that.