Lap Babies Are Unsafe Babies

Great tips for safe air travel from Baby Safety Month partner, National Safety Council

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have more rules about restraining laptops and coffeepots than about our most vulnerable passengers: children under the age of 2. 

During a moment of extreme turbulence, a ground collision or a bumpy landing, caregivers may not be capable of protecting “lap babies” under 2 years old. This loophole in airline safety should be closed: all children, regardless of age, should be required to have their own seat with an approved child restraint system.

When people think of child passenger safety, they tend to picture a child in a car seat in the back seat of a car or minivan – hopefully properly positioned and secured. Tragic stories of children killed in auto crashes inspired changes in law, equipment and attitude. Now, parents often can’t leave the hospital with a newborn child unless they have a car seat properly installed in the car.

So why is the thinking so different about children flying on airplanes?

For one, air travel is relatively safe. Since 2009, there has been only one fatality on a U.S. commercial airline. In 2016, only 33 serious passenger injuries due to turbulence were reported. (A serious injury is defined as one requiring more than 48 hours of hospitalization, a broken bone or other severe injury or burn, and less-serious injuries are not tracked.)

However, a low number of injuries and fatalities does not mean we don’t have to address this alarming situation. If a child were injured in any way, would his or her parents be glad they reduced their flight cost by holding their baby on their lap? Even one injury or death is too many.

Some have experienced this firsthand and their stories are heartbreaking. In 1989, a plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield. Two mothers were holding children on their laps. One child died. The other child was found alive in an overhead bin. Neither mother was able to effectively restrain her child according to the emergency landing instructions they were given at the time: wrap them in blankets, place them on the floor and secure them with your hands and feet.

Many people assume that if airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration allow lap babies, it must be safe. And why wouldn’t they? The truth is that the FAA “strongly urges you to secure your child in a child restraint system or device for the duration of your flight” but stops short of requiring it. The FAA Flying with Children page gives valuable information to help every family get safely to its destination. This includes how to determine whether their car seat is approved for use on a commercial flight. In addition, caregivers can use the AmSafe Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) for children between 22 and 44 pounds, but for infants in particular, a car seat is safest to support their head and neck.

The National Safety Council has a Child Passenger Restraint Policy aimed at protecting our youngest and most vulnerable passengers. NSC will continue to advocate for regulations requiring child restraints on airplanes, and they applaud legislators for recent efforts to ensure airlines are following current guidelines. Senators Richard Blumenthal, Edward J. Markey, Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein recently sent a letter to the FAA asking what the agency is doing to ensure airlines are carrying out proper practices to protect children. Whether or not regulations require it, all children should be kept safe on airplanes by properly securing them in their own seat for every flight. Their health and safety is worth the extra expense – and often these steps will make the flight more enjoyable for parents as well.

Amy Artuso is Senior Program Manager in Advocacy with the National Safety Council, a JPMA Baby Safety Month Partner.