Leaving on a Jet Plane – The CSFTL Guide to Safe Air Travel with Children

In our facebook group, we are frequently asked about the safest options for young children on airplanes.  The CSFTL team has partnered with longtime CPST-I and experienced world traveler Wendy Thomas to provide you with the most detailed, accurate information to keep your children as safe as possible on a plane as well as in the car.  Thank you so much, Wendy!


Are Car Seats Required on Airplanes?

This article covers many important basics of travel with your Littles.   Our second article, On the Road Again takes a closer look at logistics.

Traveling with children can be a fun and exciting time. Many parents dread flights they might take with their children because of the long confinement, tight quarters for diaper changes, or unwanted bathroom needs at inconvenient times. The thing that many parents forget to consider is the safety aspect of flying; they assume that since the FAA doesn’t require seats for children under two that their most precious cargo is perfectly safe while flying.

The reality is: they’re not. There’s nothing magical about two years old that makes a child suddenly need a restraint. The FAA recommends that all children use a child restraint on board an aircraft from birth to 40 pounds.

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Britax Frontier 85 on the airplane

Britax Frontier 85 on the airplane

Most parents, when asked, will say that a car seat won’t save their child if the plane drops out of the sky. I will concede that fact; two hundred dollars of plastic and harness will not likely help at the stop of a six-mile vertical drop. However, crashes from cruising altitudes are remarkably rare, thank goodness. Far more likely are runway emergencies or turbulence during flight.

Runway emergencies are just like car crashes, except at 150 mph and not 30 mph. And most parents would pale at the thought of having their child on their laps going to the store at 30 mph, but think nothing of having their child on their lap on the plane at 150 mph.

At 150 mph your child would be your airbag, or they would go flying inside the cabin. A 20 pound child in a 150 mph crash would have 3,000 pounds of force to them. That’s enough to be fatal to themselves, and whomever they impact.

Even if baby is fine after being a projectile, and no one has been injured, if you have ten seconds to get off the plane due to toxic gasses or smoke filling the cabin, you’ll want your baby to be next to you to easily go. An infant can be six rows up and under the seats and easily overlooked during an emergency evacuation. If your child is next to you in a car seat, they’ll still be there after the crash. Remove baby and go.

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Babywearing in Flight

Combi Shuttle 33 on the airplane

Combi Shuttle 33 on the airplane

Babywearing is not a substitute for a child restraint on board. It is not permitted during landing or takeoff, and the carrier is not designed to hold up to the force of a crash. The child will likely be thrown from the carrier or be crushed by the weight of your body, just as if they were sitting on your lap.

Turbulence can happen at any time, and it can be violent enough to throw people into the ceiling or several rows away. While it can be unpredictable, if you are seated you should at least fasten your belt and your children’s harnesses snugly enough so that they do not have to worry about unexpected turbulence, just as the pilot and flight crew suggests.

Remember, on the flight the only things not restrained during taxi, takeoff, and landing are children under two. Children and adults over two, the flight attendants, all carry on baggage, books, computers, soap in the lav, coffee pots, and snacks are secured. But a lap baby is not. For some reason they’re not given the same priority as the peanuts.

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Checking Car Seats

In addition to the lack of safety for a child and the people nearby, there is a risk to checking a car seat. If you must check a car seat, put it in its original packaging with padding in the box. Or maybe another box with padding. And then gate check it (it’s far more convenient to use the seat on board than to drag a big box to the gate). All too often I see parents check their car seats at the ticket counter, wrapped in nothing but a plastic bag to keep the cover clean. The cover being clean at the other end is the least of the concerns. The worst thing that can happen is that a car seat arrives at the other end with damage that cannot be seen. A seat that’s been checked as baggage should be looked over very carefully for any damage at all.  If there is any concern about the seat at all it should not be used again, but if it looks ok then the manufacturers have said it doesn’t need replacing.  All of the manufacturers, however, agree that seats should be used on board for the safety of the child.

The second to worst thing that can happen is that the seat is lost. Either it didn’t come on your flight with you, or it’s been sent to an alternative destination. Once you check it, it’s baggage, and everyone has either had baggage lost, or knows someone who has. This is fairly common and not something the airline guarantees against. They will get you your bags or money enough to replace what was lost, but when it comes to a car seat, that won’t help in the here and now when you’re picking up your rental car or getting picked up by friends or family. Someone will have to go to the nearest store and buy whatever is in stock to work for the trip.

Sometimes airlines have seats you can borrow, or rental car companies do. These should not be used. You don’t know their history, if they’ve been treated well, cleaned properly, peed in, puked in, pooped in, eaten in (especially worrying if your child has allergies), recalled, expired. They are not to be trusted.

The third worst thing would be that the seat is obviously broken when you pick it up. This is at least an obvious replacement, and so again, someone will have to go to a store and buy a new seat, but at least it’s known that the seat is broken and should not be used.

Graco MySize rear facing on an airplane

Graco MySize rear facing on an airplane

Disregarding the safety aspects for both the car seat and child, it’s far saner to travel with the car seat than without. Yes, it’s something extra to bring through the airport and install, but that’s not the bulk of travel, generally. Think about how much easier it will be for you to care for your child by handing them things in their own seat and not balancing them on your lap along with all their toys and snacks (which will inevitably fall on the floor and need to be retrieved) and your own items.

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CARES Harness and Ride Safer Travel Vest

4 years old, 40 inches, 40 lbs using the CARES harness on an airplane

4 years old, 40 inches, 40 lbs using the CARES harness on an airplane

Caregivers often ask about the safety of the CARES airplane harness. The problem with the CARES is that it really only fits children on the larger end of its 44 lb weight limit. It does nothing to re position the lap belt, and smaller toddlers can easily slip right under it. It is a viable option for a larger child, but only if you will not need a car seat at your destination or a trusted friend or family member is providing one when you arrive.

We are excitedly anticipating the FAA approval of the Ride Safer Travel Vest, which will function as an appropriate restraint both on an aircraft and in a vehicle for 3-8 year olds.

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Booster Seats on Airplanes

It is important to note that belt positioning boosters cannot be used on board an aircraft. If your child regularly rides in a booster seat, our advice is to travel with a backless booster seat. The child can bring it on board as a carry on item, which ensures it will not be lost or damaged. If you would prefer they ride in a high back booster at your destination, you can pack the high back portion of the seat in your luggage, just make sure it is well packed to avoid any damage. Other great options to consider are the Harmony Folding  Booster or the BubbleBum.

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Official Regulations and Guidelines
If you’re looking for the “official” word on this subject, here are just a few resources:

From the FAA: FAA Child Safety

Did you know that the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap? Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges you to secure your child in a CRS or device for the duration of your flight. It’s the smart and right thing to do so that everyone in your family arrives safely at your destination. The FAA is giving you the information you need to make informed decisions about your family’s travel plans.

From the AAPAMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS Restraint Use on Aircraft

Occupant protection policies for children younger than 2 years on aircraft are inconsistent with all other national policies on safe transportation. Children younger than 2 years are not required to be restrained or secured on aircraft during takeoff, landing, and conditions of turbulence. They are permitted to be held on the lap of an adult. Preventable injuries and deaths have occurred in children younger than 2 years who were unrestrained in aircraft during survivable crashes and conditions of turbulence. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a mandatory federal requirement for restraint use for children on aircraft.

From the NTSB: Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles

Chairman Hersman stated, “We appreciate the FAAC acknowledging the dangers associated with children flying on their parents’ laps, but we would have preferred to see the FAA be mandated to require that every person including our youngest children be restrained appropriately for their age and size.” She continued, “We know that the safest place for children younger than age two traveling on airplanes is in an appropriate child safety seat. The era of the lap child on airplanes should come to an end.”

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Travel Tips

Because now that you know your baby needs a seat, we have a whole slew of tips to help with the logistics of getting everyone from the terminal to their seats and back again:

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Use a stroller and stack the car seats on it, then babywear the child or have the child walk next to you.

 

Graco Contender

Graco Contender


Getting Through the Airport

Rolling a Graco Contender through the airport

Rolling a Graco Contender through the airport

  • Baby wear
  • Use a stroller
  • If the child still fits in a rear facing only car seat, use the car seat and stroller or frame and gate check the stroller
  • Have older children walk
  • Let the child sit in the car seat on the GoGo Kidz/luggage cart/Traveling Toddler
  • Let the child sit on the suitcase itself


What to Pack

  • Diapers/portable potty.  Bring about a diaper an hour, or a potty with a removable and disposable liner.
  • Snacks for children eating solids, bottles and formula if you need
  • A few small favorite games and toys and books
  • A few new small games or toys or books (don’t forget to bring new for the return trip)
  • A change of clothes and a clean shirt for you
  • Any lovey/comfort item
  • Spare pacis if they’re used
  • An empty sippy cup for an older child (have the flight attendant fill it during the drink rounds so you don’t need to deal with it at security)

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On The Airplane

Cosco Scenera rear facing on an airplane

Cosco Scenera rear facing on an airplane

  • Offer to buy a drink for anyone around you who seems annoyed by a child. Especially if their rear facing seat is in the way of reclining. “I’m sorry my child’s safety seat is in the way. Can I offer to buy you a drink for your inconvenience?”
  • If you have a tall forward facing seat that does not allow the tray to be used, put a pillow on the child’s lap for meals/drawing. It works better than you might think.
  • Classic Britax convertible car seats and the Combi Coccoro will need a seatbelt extender forward facing for ease of uninstallation, as will a Diono Radian rear facing (you’ll also want your angle adjuster!). Ask for one as you get on board from the flight attendant.
  • American airline carriers are required to abide by the FAA regulations. Nearly all convertibles and infant seats are FAA approved to their weight limits rear and forward facing. However, internationally, carriers are not required to follow the FAA regulations. Check your airline’s rules before you fly, and ideally before you purchase so you are not surprised on the plane.
  • Carry a copy of the FAA regulations with you, in case there’s a flight attendant who is not aware of the car seat rules. The Advisory Circular can be found here.

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FAA Approval

FAA approval sticker on a car seat

FAA approval sticker on a car seat

  • Familiarize yourself with the location of the FAA approval stickers on your car seats before you travel. Usually, it’s red lettering in a sticker that has a lot of black text on it as well. Almost all car seats with a 5 point harness are FAA approved and will have a sticker stating as such. Current exceptions are the Graco SmartSeat, Combi Zeus, and Safety 1st/IMMI Go Hybrid.
  • Remember that even long trips are a few hours or a day of your life and your child’s life. If they scream and are That Baby for the entire flight, you’ve annoyed a few people for a few hours. You have not permanently scarred anyone for life, and it will be over soon.
  • Try booking your flight, or at least checking airfares, in the middle of the night.  Fares are often (not always) cheaper.
  • Consider flying in and out of neighboring airports.  For example, a flight for a family of four from Seattle to Albany, NY costs $2400.  By flying to NYC the total is $1100.  Then drive three hours.

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Learn More

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Useful links

FAA regulations – 9/23/15
A summary of the FAA regulations – 9/27/15. This updates the previous version of 11007.pdf.Take a closer look at the logistics of navigating the airport, boarding the airplane, and traveling solo with your Littles in our sequel to this post, On The Road Again — Another Look at Travel with Littles

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