Flying with kids: Don’t forget the camera...and car seat

Many parents mistakenly think that it is safe to carry your child in your arms, in a baby carry/sling or on your lap on an airplane.

With the summer in full swing, many families are looking forward to their vacations. If you’re planning on traveling by car, you know to use the correct child restraint on every ride. But if you’ll be traveling by airplane with young children, you may be wondering-- do I need to bring my car seat along?

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Federal Aviation Administration recommend that parents restrain children in an appropriate child restraint system (CRS) for their size and weight for the duration of their flight. However, parents need to know that there are a few differences when safely transporting their children in planes rather than in cars: the seats and belt systems are different and so, too, are the recommendations.

Some things are the same…Everyone, child and adult, should have their own seat and restraint. Many parents mistakenly think that it is safe to carry your child in your arms, in a baby carry/sling or on your lap on an airplane.  In fact, the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved CRS or device, not on your lap. Just like your arms can’t hold your child securely during a crash, your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence or a hard landing.

For the youngest children: When going by car, the current best practice recommendations from the AAP state that children under 2 years of age should ride rear-facing, providing a protective effect for an infant’s more fragile head and neck in the event of a crash. This recommendation is the same for children riding in motor vehicles or on airplanes. In the United States, however, airlines generally allow children 2 and under to ride on laps, although the FAA and others warn against this. The decision to safely secure the youngest children falls completely on parents. As a pediatrician and traffic safety researcher, I would always recommend that children are restrained when riding in an airplane, for their safety and the safety of other passengers.

For children who have outgrown rear-facing child safety seats, parents have two options on planes – either use their forward-facing CRS, like they would do in motor vehicles, or consider using the FAA-approved CARES Child Safety Device for airplane travel. CARES is a harness-type restraint that goes around the seat back and attaches to the passenger lap belt to provide restraint for the upper part of the body. CARES is the only device that is designed and tested specifically for use on airplanes; it is NOT appropriate to use in a motor vehicle. CARES is made for children weighing between 22 and 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall and is available for purchase or rent. It can be wrapped up to easily and fit in a purse or carry-on bag, which makes walking down the aisle much easier.  One added bonus: flight attendants usually have hands-on training with the CARES device.

If you will not be traveling frequently by plane with your children and don’t want to invest in the airplane-only harness system, you can use your child’s rear-facing, convertible, or forward-facing CRS on an airplane as long as it is FAA approved. This information will be included on the seat’s label. You should also measure your child’s CRS before traveling. Typically, it needs to be no wider than 16 inches to fit in an airplane seat. With airplane seats getting smaller and child restraints becoming larger to accommodate children of higher weights, it’s important to double-check with your airline in advance of your trip that your child’s CRS will fit.  It is also important to keep up-to-date the FAA is working on new legislation that would require airlines to publish the widest seat in a class of service to better facilitate CRS usage.

For children who are larger than 44 pounds or taller than 40 inches, the airplane seat belt is the only option. When riding in motor vehicles, booster seats or harness vests are the best option for children who have outgrown forward-facing child safety seats but are not big enough for adult seat belts.  However, on planes, the FAA prohibits passengers from using these types of restraints and belly belts during ground movement, take-off and landing. This is because, in the event of a crash, the airplane seat back is designed to flex forward to absorb the energy – a bit difference from vehicle seats, which are rigid. This forward flexing of an airplane seat has the potential to wedge the child between the seat back and the booster causing injury.

If you do decide to bring your child’s CRS on board your flight, remember that it must be used in an airplane the same way it is in a motor vehicle. For example, a rear-facing infant seat is designed to work with a seat belt in rear-facing mode only, so it must also be installed that way on a plane. If your child uses a booster seat, he or she is big enough to be restrained using only the airplane lap belt.

Parents have told me about helpful and unhelpful experiences with flight attendants when trying to use CRS on planes. Know your rights: by law, if you have purchased a ticket for your child and wish to use a car seat, the airline must accommodate you with in the class of service for which the ticket was bought. I recommend that parents print out this fact sheet on the FAA website  on how to “childproof your fligh,”  and take it along with them for every flight in case a flight crew member needs to be reminded of the FAA recommendations. Also, bring all seat-specific owner manuals for instructions on use of the seat in an aircraft.

Although airplane travel with a CRS can be cumbersome, it’s important to always keep child passenger safety in mind – even when traveling to and from the airport. If you will be renting a car at your vacation destination, you will already have your child’s CRS with you and ready for use. Whether traveling by car, airplane, boat, or another form of transportation, make sure you plan ahead for traveling safely with your family this summer.

Have a fun vacation and don’t forget to take lots of pictures!  I’d love to see your family photos transporting your children safely. Tweet them to @safetymd.


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