Air Turbulance and the Implications for the Tiniest Travelers

The recent events on American Airlines flight 280 with sudden, unexpected turbulance jarring the airplane and injuring numerous people.  Passengers onbaord report everything not seatbelted in or secured down was thrown about the cabins.  And though there is no official information in the reports, I can't help but wonder about any lap infants.  You know, the precious little cargo that gets to sit unrestrained on mommy or daddy's lap while everything else is properly secured.

I'm no stranger to flying with babies. Since having children, we have been avid travelers, even seeing more than we ever did before adding three kids to our lives.  We take every opportunity we can to see new things, travel and share the world with our children.  My daughters have been to 27 different countries and we are always looking to add on to the list (more about all the places we've been and all the things we've seen).

The majority of our traveling has been by air and we have become pretty good at plane travel with babies, toddlers and young children.  My second daughter's first airplane trip was at 5 ½ weeks old and my oldest has been on over 100 airplanes.  I've flown more hours alone with my children then we have driven as a family on roadtrips (though I do have some tips for car travel with kids as well!).

We have had a child under the age of two on almost every flight we’ve taken in the past 6 years and we’ve had more “lap babies” that I can count (or would like to admit to) but truthfully, I will never do it again.  No matter the cost, my babies will have their own tickets from now on and will be securely buckled into their car seats.

I used to think if it was allowed to carry a baby on your lap then it must be safe.  But this logic is severely flawed: allowed does not equal safe!  There are many things that are legal but not safe and flying with a baby on your lap is one of them.

But does it really matter?  If the plane goes down, a car seat isn’t going to make one bit of difference, right?  True.  But what about turbulence?  An unrestrained child could be flung through the cabin.  What about aborted take offs or landings?  A lap child could be smashed into the seat back by the adult holding him/her.  What about ground collisions?  A child that is not properly buckled into a car seat on the plane faces the same risks as a child not properly restrained in a car during an accident (though planes go wildly faster).

So after so many flights with lap babies and no bad outcomes, what finally changed my mind?  One simple fact: bags must be properly stowed; adults and children must be buckled; all cabinets are locked and everything secured from the coffee pot to the safety cards; and flight crew area seated and buckled when necessary (often in harnesses!)  The only thing that isn’t properly secured during taxi, take-off, landing and bad turbulence on any flight: the babies.

That’s reason enough for me.  My babies are worth more than ANYTHING therefore deserve to be properly restrained as much as every other person and item on an airplane.  The expense is hard to swallow, trust me.  I’m paying for 5 seats on every flight, but I cannot put a price on my children’s lives and wellbeing.  If we are ever in a bind where we cannot afford tickets for every person, then we will not all fly.

So why is it allowed?  Part of me wants to believe that it can’t be TOO unsafe if every country in the world allows it but it only takes one time to change a family’s life forever.  And just as I take (what some may call) extreme precautions to protect my children in the car despite the rules being much more lax (see all of my posts on Car Safety), I know the rules for lap babies are just outdated and that doesn’t make it safe and most groups who know anything about air safety advise against lap babies:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states: 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 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states: When traveling on an airplane, a child is best protected when properly restrained in a car safety seat appropriate for the age, weight and height of the child until the child weighs more than 40 lbs. and can use the aircraft seat belt.
  • In a report from 1990 (nearly 25 years ago!!!), the National Transportation Safety Board recommended: the Federal Aviation Administration…require that all occupants be restrained during takeoff, landing, and turbulent conditions, and that all infants and small children below the weight of 40 pounds and under the height of 40 inches be restrained in an approved child restraint system appropriate to their height and weight.  (read through the above link if you want to see what can happen to an unrestrained baby in the event of an emergency, seriously scary stuff!)

A few airlines even encourage the use of Child restraints:

  • Southwest states: If you're traveling with an infant or small child, you should know that proper use of a Child Restraint System (CRS) enhances child safety on aircraft. For this reason, Southwest Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly recommend that infants and small children who weigh under 40 pounds be secured in an appropriate CRS when traveling by air. (and they offer Infant fares)
  • Delta states: We want you and your children to have the safest, most comfortable flight possible. For kids under the age of two, we recommend you purchase a seat on the aircraft and use an approved child safety seat.

Is buying your infant or toddler a seat on your next flight cheaper?  Nope.  Is it easier? Not always. Is it safer?  For sure!  And that’s all that should matter.

For more on air travel with children, check out my posts on Airplane Travel with Kids.