Most Dangerous Airplane Seats for Kids

Should parents be forced to buy an extra airplane seat for their infants?

August 30, 2010, 6:04 PM

Aug. 31, 2010— -- Parents are legally required to place their young kids in car seats every time they get in the family vehicle. So why is it that children under the age of 2 can sit on their parent's lap when flying?

The National Transportation Safety Board wants to change that. The federal agency says that a large number of air plane crashes are actually survivable but only if everybody is buckled up. And as much as a mother or father might love their child, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to hold on tight enough during a crash to stop the baby from flying throughout the cabin.

"Most aviation accidents are survivable," said Nora Marshall, who oversees aviation survival factors for the NTSB. "Your child deserves the same level of protection that you're going to get with a restraint system."

So now the NTSB is pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to require child seats for infants. Currently the FAA says that only children over the age of 2 need their own seats. Everybody younger can fly on their parent's lap.

"Proper restraint use is one of the most basic and important tenets of crashworthiness and survivability," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman wrote in a letter earlier this month to FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt.

But don't expect any change soon. The NTSB has been seeking this change since 1979.

The key here is that airlines current let anybody under the age of 2 fly for free if they don't require their own seat. If all children needed to be in a car seat, the airlines would likely charge for that extra seat. In the past, the FAA has said that it believes the extra charge would force some families to drive instead of flying and that driving isn't as safe as flying.

"We don't have any immediate plans to change our rules, but we'll certainly take a fresh look at the board's recommendations," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette told ABC News.

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Safety Tips for Flying With Young Children

The FAA also believes that separate seats are the safest spot for kids -- "nobody wants to see lap children," Duquette said -- but is mandated to weigh the risks of requiring such a change and found that there would be overall more child fatalities, because more children would be traveling in cars and fewer in planes.

"We strongly recommend and we strongly advocate that parents use an approved child-safety seat in an airplane but it's not a requirement," Duquette said. "The bottom line, it's still the parents' decision."

So it basically comes down to recommendations vs. requirements.

The FAA even suggests on a special section of its website dedicated to traveling with kids that parents buy that extra seat.

"If you hit severe turbulence, there's pretty much no chance you're going to be able to hold on to that child," Duquette said.

The NTSB isn't the only group that would like to see separate seats for children be mandatory.

"We believe that all occupants deserve the same protection, including infants," said Candace Kolander, who deals with air safety and health for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 22 airlines.

Kolander noted that all food service items on a flight need to be strapped in for take-off and landing.

"A coffee pot has better protection than an infant," she said.

The last time the FAA took up this issue, in 1995, it found that "if forced to purchase an extra airline ticket, families might choose to drive, a statistically more dangerous way to travel."

The aviation agency noted that highways are much more dangerous with 43,000 highway deaths in 1994 compared to 13 on commercial flights. (While the numbers have changed a bit for 2009, there are still much fewer airplane fatalities: there were 33,963 U.S. traffic deaths last year compared to 45 on commercial flights.)

"Statistics show that families are safer traveling in the sky than on the road," the FAA said back in 1995. "We encourage the use of child safety seats in airplanes. However, if requiring extra airline tickets forces some families to drive, then we're inadvertently putting too many families at risk."

Airlines and Fees for Extra Seats

No airline wants to be the first to start charging extra for young children and possibly lose customers. Airlines contacted by ABC News said they would follow whatever rules the FAA imposed. None said they would be willing to voluntarily go beyond that.

For instance, JetBlue said: "We abide by FAA rules and will comply when and if they decide to make any changes." The airline, like most others, posts an extensive guide to traveling with young children online.

The Air Transport Association of America, which represents all the major carriers, added that "our carriers operate in full compliance with FAA's safety regulations."

The NTSB understands the FAA's view and its mandate to do a cost-benefit analysis.

"We just look at it differently than the FAA," Marshall said.

The NTSB doesn't believe that highway fatalities would increase if parents were forced to purchase additional seats. Marshall notes that after 9/11 when fewer people were flying the number of traffic fatalities did not rise. The same can be said about the last year when the global recession led to a downturn in air travel.

"We would prefer not to wait for a body count when laws of physics mandate that you need to be protected in a crash," she said. "The majority of people survive airplane accidents. So why wouldn't you want the best protection?"

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