Should Car Seats Be Mandatory For Infants On Planes?

In 2005, the FAA released a statement about mandating the use of car seats in purchased seats on planes for children under two.
01/08/2013 07:51 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

I know I've said it more than once, "I doubt a car seat would do much good in a plane crash." Usually it was to justify squeezing in one last trip before either my son or daughter turned two. And yet, the mother of six-month-old Isaac Appaqaq will forever be left wondering if her son would still be alive had she purchased him a seat on the Perimeter Aviation turbo-prop plane carrying seven passengers and two crew members that crashed December 22, 2012 near the airport in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. Isaac was the crash's only fatality, and the survivors escaped without major injuries.

In 2005, the FAA released a statement about mandating the use of car seats in purchased seats on planes for children under two:

The agency said its analyses showed that, if forced to purchase an extra airline ticket, families might choose to drive, a statistically more dangerous way to travel. The risk for fatalities and injuries to families is significantly greater on the roads than in airplanes, according to the FAA. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died on America's highways as compared to 13 on commercial flights.

Many claimed the FAA was copping out on a serious safety issue, especially as they state on their website that:

The FAA strongly urges parents and guardians to secure children in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size. Keeping a child in a CRS or device during the flight is the smart and right thing to do.

But as a parent who has been flying with a baby from newborn to preschooler for six years and counting, I know that it's expensive. And without a doubt, it's a huge hassle to fly with a car seat. And while it was with that 2005 press release that the FAA approved the use of the CARES Harness, which is much lighter and easier to fly with than a car seat, you still have to actually purchase that additional seat. To date, seat belt extenders and "travel vests" that attach to a parent's seat belt are not allowed for take-off and landing -- and some airlines will not let you use them at all.

I've been fortunate to fly on airlines that make the use of car seats possible without having to fork over an additional airfare. Some will allow you to confer with the gate agent to double check the capacity of a flight, allowing you to either bring your car seat on board in the event of a less-than-full flight or gate-checking if there's no room. But these days it's getting more and more difficult to ensure you're seated with your family, never mind with a baby and a car seat. So relying on the airlines to help is not advisable. But I can say that those flights when my son was in his car seat were certainly the easiest, having him secure and contained.

Regarding Isaac's death, Canada's Transportation Safety Board spokesman John Cottreau said he expects the investigation will review how Isaac died and whether safety could have been improved inside the aircraft's cabin. Although Canada is in agreement with the FAA regarding the need for infants to be secured in a certified child safety seat, should parents choose to purchase a seat, the TSB's mandate can only recommend changes to eliminate or reduce safety problems. The power to actually make the changes rests with Canada's federal government.

In reality, an actual plane crash is the least of our worries. Unexpected turbulence can catapult an unrestrained infant or toddler through an aircraft cabin just as easily as a crash could. And yet, I still justified keeping my kids on my lap due to keeping costs low. Ironically, we recently had to drive to Florida and back, more than 20 hours each way, and I was very concerned about ensuring my kids were wearing their seat belts correctly and that their car seats were properly installed. Cost required us to drive, and driving at night through a blizzard in the Smoky Mountains certainly felt less safe than having my son my lap on a plane. But little Isaac died on the day we completed our journey down South, and the sadness I feel at his loss and my empathy for the anguish and guilt his mother must be feeling haven't left me upon our return.

As a parent I know how expensive it is to factor in extra airfares when budgeting for family travel. And as a travel agent I know how complicated it can be to actually purchase a seat for an infant. And this issue is really more involved than actually regulating that all infants be in their own seat, in an approved car seat. Some families don't have car seats because they don't need them. Some families' car seats aren't approved or won't fit on a plane. And if this does become the law, doesn't that make the airlines responsible to ensure the kids are in an approved seat that's properly installed? I can't see them accepting that role easily or gladly.

I started buying my kids seats on planes because I had to. And I would have bought them seats if I had to when they were under two. I hope if talks regarding infant safety on planes is reopened that the FAA and the TSB think of Isaac. And Kate Williams. In October of 2007, three-year-old Kate was the sole survivor of a Cessna 172 crash in British Columbia that killed her grandfather and his business associate. She was found surrounded by debris in the back of the plane, strapped into her car seat.

Corinne McDermott is the founder of Have Baby Will Travel - inspiring, motivating, and helping families travel with babies, toddlers and young children since 2007. Offering tips and advice on eating, sleeping, and getting around while traveling with baby, she is also a travel agent and family vacation specialist. Connect with her via Facebook or Twitter.