Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Using Your Car Seat on an Airplane

A little disclaimer here: The last time I was on an airplane was March 2007, when I flew cross country with my then-4-month-old*. However, as travel season has arrived and we're already hearing stories about parents harassed by aircraft crews for using child safety seats during flights, I thought an article about this topic was warranted.

The FAA is very clear that it is recommended for all children to use an approved child safety restraint (car seat) on flights. It is safest for a baby to ride in a car seat on an airplane in the same manner as they would ride in one in a car. This means that if you have a baby who normally rides in a rear-facing car seat in the car, then your safest course of action is to have your baby ride rear-facing in a car seat on the airplane as well.

Here is the FAA's page on using car seats on planes: http://www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/

The easiest option for you is to simply bring your car seat with you when you travel. Make sure your car seat says on it that it is FAA approved for use on airplanes. Almost all car seats are approved for airline use. Check your car seat manual for instructions on installing it on an airplane. You cannot use LATCH when installing a car seat on an airplane. You will use the seat belt on the plane to secure the car seat. The car seat does not count as a carry-on item.

But airlines allow children under 2 to fly free on a parent's lap. Why should I buy a seat for the baby and lug my car seat with me? 

This is a common question. It's certainly attractive to save money by not purchasing a ticket for your baby. However, at some point you will have to start paying for a ticket for your child (when they turn 2!), so weigh carefully your child's safety against your travel budget when you make your decision. There are no laws requiring you to use a car seat on a plane, except the laws of physics! However, car seat technicians and safety experts do agree that it is considerably safer for a child to ride in his own purchased seat in an approved child restraint when flying. Just like you keep your child rear-facing beyond one year and 20 pounds even though the law says otherwise, consider having that same child ride rear-facing in a car seat on the airplane as well.

I can give you another excellent reason to take your car seat with you onto the plane and use it: You'll likely need it at your destination anyway. This way, you don't have to check the seat. We've all seen videos of how checked baggage is treated. Many of us have had bags or belongings damaged by baggage handlers. Once your car seat has been checked, you can't guarantee that it wasn't abused. It may no longer be safe to use in a car and may no longer safely restrain your child in an accident after it has been through baggage checking on a plane! And if you weren't otherwise planning to take your car seat with you, consider that the seats available for rent from car rental agencies are typically not well maintained, have suspicious history, and are not guaranteed to be the right seat for your child. I know I would be more comfortable having my own car seat at my destination than relying on the unknown upon arrival.

According to this site, 36% of plane accidents occur on final approach and landing, and 32% occur during taxi and takeoff. There's a reason airlines want you to be sitting and buckled in during those phases of the flight. Being restrained and sitting properly in your seat is the best way to keep you safe. Consider that if you are sitting unrestrained or walking around the aircraft, and the airplane (traveling at something like 200mph) stops suddenly due to a crash, you will go flying. Inertia doesn't discriminate. Now, think about the child on your lap. A child weighing 20 pounds traveling 200mph will exert a force of 4000 pounds on your loving arms in a sudden stop. Could you hold on to 4000 pounds moving away from you? I couldn't. Think: Why do airlines require that all your baggage be securely stored in the overhead compartments or under the seat in front of you during takeoff and landing? Because if something happens, those items could go flying and injure someone. Your baby could be a projectile as easily as your laptop could. The car seat is designed to keep your child cradled gently as the vehicle jerks to a stop. Using a car seat on a flight can mean the difference between minor injuries and death for your child in a runway accident.

But what if the crew tells me I can't use it?

Now that word is getting out that it's safest to use a car seat on a flight, more parents are purchasing seats for their babies and taking their car seats with them. This is fantastic, and most of them don't run into any problems installing and using the seat as intended during the flight.

However, I have heard several stories in just the past few weeks about families who were bullied by the flight crew into either not using their seat at all or using it inappropriately, and these stories come up reasonably often. Remember that thousands of people fly every day and if we only hear a few of these stories a month, that means hundreds of families are not having issues with flying with their car seats. However, flight crews should be educated in both FAA regulations and their own airlines' policies regarding child restraints and child safety on their aircraft so that no parent has to worry about being harassed or bullied for trying to keep their child safe.

If a flight attendant tells you that you cannot use your car seat as intended (for example, rear-facing) when you are using it in an FAA-approved manner, your best bet is to have a copy of the FAA regulations and their own airline's policy in your pocket that you can whip out and show them. Explain that you are following the safety recommendations from safety experts, including the FAA and NTSB. Try not to become angry or belligerent but to explain your position as calmly as possible. You are within your rights to use your car seat on the flight, and if the seat doesn't fit in your assigned seat, the crew are required to make every reasonable effort to find you a seat where it does fit. After your flight, contact the airline via their customer service department and/or social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and explain what happened and what the eventual outcome was. Most airlines will be willing to work with you to ensure that their flight crews are trained in correct procedures. If possible, have the flight number, the confirmation number on your ticket, and the name(s) of any of the members of the flight crew who were involved in your conflict so that you can have a productive discussion with the airline company.

Be prepared.

As always when traveling with children, it's important to prepare ahead of time. Just as you'll check to make sure you have diapers and wipes, food and supplies and toys for your child, make sure you have their car seat ready and available and that you know how to install it. Your car seat manual will have instructions for airplane use. If you can't find your manual, almost all manuals are available on the manufacturer's website for download. You could even save the instructions directly to your smartphone or iPad so you'll have it easily accessible if you need it.

If you can, try to reserve a bulkhead seat so that there will be ample room for your car seat without bothering anyone in front of you. A rear-facing car seat must be secured in the window seat so that it does not block anyone's access to the aisle of the plane, so when you reserve your seat, if possible, take that into consideration. See if you can work with the ground crew and the flight crew to make your boarding and car seat installation and smooth and quick as possible.

Tell us about your experiences!

If you have flown with a child in a car seat, please comment here or at the Facebook page about how it went for you. Did you feel that the flight crew accommodated your needs? Do you have any specific tips for airline travel with babies, specifically in reference to using the car seat on the flight?

*When I did fly with my 4-month-old, I bought him a seat and took his car seat with us and installed in on the plane. I recall having absolutely no problems and was very happy to have the car seat with me. The baby slept a good portion of the time in his seat, leaving my arms and lap free, and it was very convenient to simply have the seat with me at my destination. I flew Southwest, PHL to LAX, in March of 2007.

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