With the holiday travel season quickly approaching, the federal government, flight attendants and airlines are urging parents to buckle up their babies on airplanes instead of holding them in their laps, even if it means shelling out money for an extra ticket.
A special forum on child safety in Washington today brought together representatives from the NTSB, the FAA and the Association of Flight Attendants. Everyone agrees that a young child is safer when buckled into a safety restraint on an airplane, but after decades of debate, tickets still will not be required for children under age two. The FAA has concluded in the past that such a requirement would discourage air travel and put more cars on the road, where the likelihood of harm is statistically far greater.
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While many have criticized the government's failure to make restraints a requirement, all were in agreement today that it's safer for babies to be buckled in, though that often means paying an extra full fare to accommodate an infant.
"Adults experience the same crash forces as children and no love in the world can hold onto that baby in severe turbulence or if you're in a crash," said Debbie Hersman, the chairwoman of the NTSB.
In a document on its website, the FAA has spelled out its safety recommendations to the public.
"FAA strongly urges parents and guardians to secure children in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size," the agency writes. "Keeping a child in a CRS [Child Restraint System] or device during the flight is the smart and right thing to do."
Parents still will be allowed to hold children under two years of age in their laps, though critics say the practice not only puts the child at risk but other passengers as well. In a plane crash, a 20-pound baby can fly with the force of a 100-pound missile.
"We are trained that in an emergency, loose items can be dangerous if flying through the cabin," said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in prepared remarks. "A lap child has the potential to be one of those loose items."
The AFA-CWA is lobbying the government to require restraint devices for children.
The FAA suggests that even if parents do not buy a ticket for their young children, they should ask their airline if they can use an empty seat for a restraint system. Many child restraint systems now are approved for use in both cars and on planes.
In the event of an emergency, if a parent does not have a child restraint system, airlines say they should fasten their seatbelts only around themselves -- not around their child. Then, parents are told hold the child in a way to minimize impact.
Holding a child secure during a crash isn't as easy as it might sound. When Capt. Chesley Sullenberger's plane crashed in the Hudson River, Jim Whitaker volunteered to hold a 9-month-old boy who'd been sitting in his mother's lap.
"I turned him sideways like a football under my arm, held him close to my chest," said Whitaker. "It took all the effort I had."
The baby, named Damien, was, thankfully, OK.
The FAA has issued the following recommendations for children: