Lap Children: The Most Unsafe Passengers on a Plane

Experts agree on the dangers to unrestrained babies and toddlers. So why won't the FAA protect them?

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Some parents were indignant when a father was tossed off an Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle after his unruly 3-year-old refused to be buckled in and sit upright for takeoff. But the incident highlighted an even bigger safety issue about bringing very young kids on planes, which is, Why are children under the age of 2 even allowed to sit on an adult’s lap with no seatbelt?

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Regarding this question, there are no debates on the evidence: the laws of physics have been accepted by experts in the field, and they conclude that unrestrained children face additional risks during turbulence and emergency situations. But untold numbers of parents and caregivers have no idea of the risks — and no matter how much you love your kid and think the safest place for that little one is in your arms, unless your name is Clark Kent, you can’t argue with g-forces. Period.

In 2010, I served as the consumer advocate on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee and presided over a subcommittee meeting and solicited opinions from the industry’s leading experts on this topic. All agreed on the dangers of unrestrained babies and toddlers, and some of us concluded that the best solution would be barring U.S. airlines from allowing “lap kids.”

Such a move would close an antiquated loophole that has existed since 1953, when the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor organization mandated that all passengers onboard commercial flights must be restrained — except those under 2. Of course, 59 years ago, there were no child seats in cars (and no seat-belt or helmet laws either), so conventional wisdom dictated strapping a single seat belt around both the adult and child. This practice has proven to be just as dangerous as simply holding an infant, since the smaller passenger can slip out or be crushed by the weight of the larger passenger.

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I have spoken to numerous accident survivors, including the mothers of unrestrained babies on Continental Flight 1404 in Denver in 2008 and U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York City in 2009 (the “Miracle on the Hudson”). These women didn’t realize the importance of child restraints until after their children survived life-threatening crashes. I also spoke to Jan Brown, a former flight attendant who had the heart-wrenching duty of informing a mother that her unrestrained child did not survive the crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989; Brown later became a passionate advocate for mandating child restraints.

(MORE: How to Survive a Plane Crash)

After Sioux City, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to ban lap kids, but more than 20 years later, it still hasn’t happened. The reason? The economics of the FAA’s “diversion theory,” which holds that if parents are forced to purchase airline seats for kids under age 2, some families will elect to drive instead, and statistically that’s more dangerous, as the FAA has repeatedly stated. I’ve met the FAA employees who crafted this directive, and I know they’re sincere in their belief that banning lap kids will have unintended consequences on highways, but I still find this reasoning flawed.

The good news is that several weeks ago, as part of a larger effort to educate parents, the FAA responded to our proposal by launching a Child Safety page on its site, complete with tips on selecting and installing restraints for children who have their own seats. But there are no recommendations on how to protect lap children. When it comes to flying, it’s no longer all or nothing at all — even the worst aviation accidents have proven to be survivable. But the deck is still heavily stacked against the smallest, most vulnerable passengers who need the most protection and get the least.

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