Updated November 2021
When my son was 8 months old we flew from California to Chicago to visit relatives. Although I was not yet a Child Passenger Safety Technician, I understood the importance of using car seats, even on airplanes. So, as a diligent mother, I purchased him a ticket and installed his Britax Wizard rear-facing.
On three of our four flights, we had no problems. On the last one, though, the flight attendant insisted that I turn my son’s seat forward-facing because the passenger in front of him wouldn’t be able to recline. I knew the car seat should stay rear-facing, but with no proof and a plane full of anxious passengers, I acquiesced rather than put up a fight.
If only I had known about the Federal Aviation Administration’s Advisory Circular regarding Use of Child Restraint Systems on Aircraft, things might have been different.
The Advisory Circular, which was updated in September 2015, details the FAA’s policies regarding child restraints on planes, and anyone traveling by aircraft with a child in a car seat would be wise to print out a copy and take it onboard. (Please note that the FAA regulations apply to U.S.-based carriers operating inside or outside of the United States. If you’re flying a foreign airline these guidelines won’t necessarily apply.)
To make things easy for you, the traveling parent, I am going to tell you exactly where to find the pertinent information so you can print out the Circular and highlight what you might need.
Parents are Allowed to Use Child Restraints: The Advisory Circular includes wording that no airline “may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS when the parent/guardian purchases a ticket for the child.” It also states that if the child restraint doesn’t fit in the specific seat assigned to the child, the airline needs to try to accommodate it in different seat within the same service class. You can find that information in Sections 10-d and 10-f on page 8.
Rear-Facing vs. Forward-Facing: Since the complaint we hear most often is that parents were forced to turn a child forward-facing, be sure to highlight Section 19 on pages 14-15 if you plan on using a rear-facing car seat. It states: “CRSs must be installed in forward-facing aircraft seats, in accordance with instructions on the label. This includes placing the CRS in the appropriate forward or aft-facing direction as indicated on the label for the size of the child.” Flight attendants often misinterpret the rules to mean that the child restraint has to be installed forward-facing, not just on a seat that’s facing forward. So in addition to highlighting, you might want to underline the part about “appropriate forward or aft-facing direction.”
Window Seats vs. Other Seats: The rest of Section 19 (page 15) discusses placement of the child restraint. Windows are preferred, but other seats might be acceptable as long as they don’t block other passengers from exiting the plane.
Children Over 40 lbs: Section 24 on pages 16-17 states that parents can use a restraint for a child of any age or size as long as the restraint is “appropriate for that child’s size and weight.” That can be important if you’re using a car seat for an older child, especially one over 40 pounds.
Boosters with Harnesses are Allowed: Are you traveling with a combination seat (a harnessed seat that can also be used as a booster), and think the flight attendant might say you can’t use it because boosters are banned? Just point out Section 17-b on pages 13 and 14, which explains that those restraints are fine as long as the harness is being used (provided your seat really is approved for airline use with the harness, of course).
Worn-Off Labels: Have the stickers worn off of your car seat? No problem. Section 12-b on page 10 says that you can use the seat if you provide a letter from the child restraint manufacturer stating that the seat is approved for airline use. If you have the manual (which you should!), that will suffice, too.
Foreign Seats: Is your seat from another country? That’s ok. As long as it bears a sticker showing that it has been approved for aircraft use by the UN or a foreign government, American-based airlines are required to let you use it. (Section 9-b on page 6 and Sections 12 and 13 on page 10.)
Once you have boarded the plane, highlighted copy of the Advisory Circular in hand, what do you do if you are challenged? Be firm but polite. Air travel tends to put people on edge, but you’ll win more battles with kindness than hostility.
Take out your Advisory Circular and point to the pertinent rule. Ask the flight attendant if he has information that contradicts the FAA’s guidelines, and if he does, ask to see it.
If the crew continues to give you trouble, only you can decide how far to push the issue. Regardless of the outcome, make sure you file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (by mail, phone, or online) and your airline.
Hopefully, though, your preparation will pay off and you can fly happy, knowing your child is as safe as possible.
Looking for more helpful information on flying the friendly skies with kids? Check out our related blogs on the subject: