The issue of how to best handle flying with kids and their carseats is something that comes up often. 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 under the age of 2, who wound up as lap babies on the flight. For the record, here at CarseatBlog, we have always recommended that you buy a ticket for your child (regardless of their age), bring their carseat and use it on the plane.
Newborn on airplane – safe and comfortable!
Regardless of why parents chose to check their carseats, the fact remains that most travelers flying with carseats 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 guys suddenly look at the carseat 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? There are some CPS 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 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.
It’s the travel season and for many families with small children, that includes flying somewhere. Since so many carseats are heavy and bulky, it makes sense in some cases to invest in a lightweight carseat just for traveling. Plus, this spares you the hassle of re-installing your main carseat when you get back to your own car, weary from traveling.
Ideally, a spare travel carseat should be lightweight (under 15 lbs), easy to install with the lap-only belt on an airplane seat and narrow enough to fit in a typical coach seat. With those criteria in mind, here are several options to consider.
Infant carseats – no need to buy anything new as long as your current infant seat can be installed without the base. I guess it’s possible to drag the base with you on the plane but that’s just making life harder than it needs to be. As long as your infant seat allows installation without the base (most do but there are some exceptions so make sure you know for sure), it’s easy to install the carrier rear-facing with the lap-only belt on the plane.
If you’re leaving the base at home – make sure you practice baseless installation a few times so when you arrive at your destination you know how to install the carseat properly in the car, using a typical lap/shoulder belt. We have a VIDEO HERE that demonstrates my technique for quick and easy installations of an infant carseat without the base.
Stay clear of unsafe gimmicky products like the ones pictured below. These products are NOT acceptable alternatives to using an actual carseat on the plane to restrain your child. Along the same lines – using a sling or infant carrier also isn’t a safe alternative for your baby or toddler because you aren’t allowed to wear your child during take-offs or landings when the risks are highest. There is a good reason for this but the details are ugly so I’m not going to go into it right now. If you would like more info on why slings and infant carriers are not a safe alternative to using a carseat on a plane, please see the NTSB website.
UPDATED NOV 2018
If you plan to install the convertible seat rear-facing on the plane then you’ll be best served by a seat that is fairly compact which will increase your chances of the seat actually fitting rear-facing in the space you have to work with.
Rear-facing 5-40 lbs, or up to 40″ tall. Forward-facing 22-65 lbs, or up to 43″ tall
No matter which seat you decide to take on the plane for your child – you will want to know where the FAA approval language is stated in case one of the flight attendants asks to see proof that your carseat is certified for use in an aircraft. Look for RED lettering on one of the sticker labels on the carseat. The FAA language is required to be written in red. The language can vary slightly but in general, this is what you’re looking for:
For forward-facing kids, you’ll be best served by a seat that’s lightweight, fairly narrow, with tall top harness slots and a weight limit of 50 lbs. or more. Keep in mind that combination seats (aka harness/booster) can only be used on the plane in harnessed mode. Booster seats (or combination seats used without the 5-pt harness in booster mode) are not FAA certified and cannot be used on an airplane because all booster seats require a lap/shoulder belt, which airplanes don’t have.
Rear-facing 5-40 lbs., Forward-facing for children at least 1-year-old, 22-65 lbs., or up to 49″ tall. *Forward-facing beltpath is behind the back of the shell. This unique design means your FF child won’t have the metal latchplate of the airplane seatbelt in their back during the flight.
A unique product for kids over 1-year-old who weigh between 22-44 lbs., and are under 40″ tall. *CARES harness is certified for use ONLY on the plane. It cannot be used in motor vehicles. It’s very useful for situations where you don’t need a carseat to use on the ground when you arrive at your destination. We have a review of the CARES Harness here.
Remember, only carseats with an internal harness can be used on a plane. You cannot use a booster seat on an airplane because booster seats require a lap/shoulder belt and airplanes only have lap belts. If your child rides in a booster seat and you are bringing it with you, you can gate check it or bring it on the plane and put it in the overhead bin (if it fits).
For more info on flying with kids and carseats – check out our related blogs on the subject:
Yet another reason to use a carseat on an airplane
I’ve always been a proponent of using carseats on airplanes. Turbulence is a cause of many injuries to adults and children each year and it can’t be anticipated. Parents with lap babies can’t hold their kids with a death-grip hold for an entire plane ride, nor would they want to. Harnessed carseats give kids a comfortable place to sit that fits them, keeps them safe, and allows their parents’ arms to be free for other tasks.
There’s another reason brought up in a recent NPR article that had never occurred to me since I’ve always thought of the big injuries happening from turbulence—head and spinal injuries. Lap babies—kids under age 2 who can ride for free on planes in their parents laps—can interfere with drink service or tray tables and be burned by hot coffee. In fact, burns from hot drinks cause 39% of kid injuries on a plane. Service carts being pushed down the aisle can also pinch fingers.
“I think this is a really important reminder that the same things you need to worry about at home, you should worry about on a plane,”
– Dr. Benjamin Hoffman
Have you ever had a suitcase dropped on you from an overhead bin? I have. It hurts. Imagine what can happen to a lap child sitting in an aisle seat. Children in carseats are placed next to a window seat, which protects them from falling overhead baggage as well.
Many parents balk at spending money on a ticket for a child under age 2 when it’s not required. The only thing in an airplane that’s not required to be secured during takeoff, landing, and rough, turbulent flight is a child under age 2. What’s wrong with this picture? What magically happens at age 2 that makes that child’s health and life so much more valuable that he must occupy his own seat? Injuries to children on airplanes aren’t terribly common, but they can be reduced to zero by simple use of a carseat. That’s cheaper than the cost of the co-pay to the emergency room in your destination city right there.
Looking for more helpful information on flying the friendly skies with kids? Check out our related blogs on the subject:
Don’t get too excited. As much as I’d like to say that the FAA’s new rule regarding child restraints is to require them for children under 2…I can’t. Instead the new rule, which goes into effect on October 30 and requires full compliance by February 29, 2016, probably won’t make much of a difference for most parents.
Way back in 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act required the FAA to require airlines to post the maximum width for a child restraint to fit in its airplanes. Now, three years later, that rule has been amended and finalized with some changes. Instead of airlines posting the maximum width of the child restraint, they will now need to publish the width of the narrowest and widest seats in each class.
In a way, that’s a good thing. Because the contours of child restraints can vary so much (some are kind of boxy, some taper, etc.) a one-size-fits-all measurement might not be accurate or even helpful. There are a lot of seats that might be wider than an airline’s stated limit but that will still fit. It would be unfortunate for a flight attendant to declare a child restraint too wide without giving the parent a chance to try it. (Most airline seats have movable armrests, and putting those up means nearly any child restraint approved for airline use will work.)
The new regulation—requiring airlines to post the width of their seats—gives parents some more flexibility. Maybe they’ll decide to pay a little more for a wider seat, or maybe they’ll just breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their child restraint is close to that number, and will surely fit once the armrests are raised.
There are some downsides, though. The measurements will be taken between the inside edge of the armrests, meaning that in most cases, people will still be given a sort of unrealistic idea of what can actually fit. I understand that, though. Measuring with armrests up (would it just be one armrest or both?) would be kind of nebulous.
This will also still lead to confusion among parents who see that an airline seat’s measurement is, say 16″ but their child restraint is 17″. That’s probably not any more or less confusing than giving parents the “maximum width” their child restraint can be, but it certainly isn’t any more helpful. Will the child restraint fit or not? (Answer: Probably.) I’m sure there will also be instances where a parent sees that the seat’s measurement is smaller than their child restraint’s measurement and decide to not take the restraint at all.
In the Child Passenger Safety world, we’ve gotten used to regulations that don’t really help anything. It’s taken more than a decade to finally get LATCH standards more-or-less uniform, and even those still don’t make complete sense. The FAA seems to have taken a long time nit-picking over a relatively minor issue that doesn’t even come close to addressing the real issue: Airlines need to make air travel easier for people with child restraints, and the FAA should require that all passengers have seats of their own on the plane.
You can read more CarseatBlog posts about children on aircraft here: