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December 19, 2007

Who CARES? The FAA's Car-Seats-On-Planes Policy Is A Total Train Wreck

cares_on_faa.jpgThis is getting ridiculous. Though the FAA approved the CARES safety harness for use on planes more than two years ago, a quick look at eight major US carriers' stated policies on flying with kids found seven different, contradictory treatments. Checking six minor and regional carriers turned up four more different policies--plus a couple of blanks. [There's a summary of each carrier's policy, with direct links, after the jump.]

And as DT reader Darren recently found out--and as anyone who flies regularly suspected--that cranky, underpaid flight attendant with the Cheney Complex don't need no stinkin' FAA badges; it's her way or the highway, pal, and you'll definitely need a car seat then, because you'll be driving home for Christmas unless you do exactly what she says.

Which is actually how it's supposed to work, according to comments from Dave, an airline employee who says FAA approval of a device is superseded by airline approval--or prohibition--of a device. They only allow FAA-approved devices, and that means no harnesses, even the harness the FAA has approved for two years. Got it?

Great, because it turns out that in 2005, the whole FAA car seat regulation thing became actually more of a guideline, and the agency's attempt "to encourage families who fly to use child restraint systems... by amending its regulations permitting the use of alternative child restraint systems to improve safety" has instead created an inconsistent, contradictory mishmash of carrier-specific policies that, at best, leaves you carrying a giant car seat around the airport when you may not have to.

And why is that, exactly? Why did the FAA withdraw its rule that kids must use a safety restraint device? To make it safer for kids, naturally.

In August 2005, when the FAA announced that CARES was approved for use by airlines who wished to offer safety restraint devices to their passengers [none did], the agency also announced a change: "[the FAA] will not mandate the use of child safety seats on airplanes because of the increased safety risk to families." [emphasis added for jawdropping WTF-ness.]

"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." How much more dangerous is this car seat regulation, you ask?

...current FAA and NHTSA studies...show a mandate could result in another 13 to 42 added family member fatalities over 10 years in highway accidents.
That's right. Requiring child safety restraints on planes "could result in another" 1.3-4.2 traffic fatalities per year, nationwide.

After a year in which no US carrier offered CARES to car-seat schlepping passengers, the FAA authorized the harnesses for individual passenger purchase and use. [Incidentally, the CARES is not the first plane safety device the FAA has approved and the airlines have punted on: who can forget the Planeseat CRS-2000? Besides everyone, I mean.]

So not only are air carriers' policies no longer unified, or brought up-to-date with the latest FAA guidelines [sic], a closer reading of some airline policies make it sound like car seats are, in fact, optional. Confused yet?

Details are in the previous post, but here's a recap of the major US carriers' stated car seat/safety restraint policies in descending order of CARES-savviness.

  • American: promotes CARES on their site.
  • JetBlue and Delta: mention FAA-approved CARES by name.
  • United: just updated:prohibits specific kinds of non-CARES harnesses, and now mentions and approves CARES by name. Also, "You may use an approved infant car seat," not "must." But if you do, it "must" be FAA-approved.
  • NW: no policy, just a link to FAA.
  • Continental: "infant seats" required only for "children unable to sit upright with the seat belt fastened."
  • Southwest: mentions only "FAA-approved car seat," no "may" or "encourage" about it. this just in, 12/21: DT reader Steve points out that Southwest has updated their published child safety restraint policy to specifically include CARES. And the Century Breverra Booster Seat. Huh. Alright, then!
  • US Air: prohibits "Vest and harness type child restrains [sic] or belly belts"
  • Alaska Air: "Car Seats: Infants traveling on a regular fare are strongly recommended to be secured in an appropriate child restraint system," but only "federal motor vehicle safety standards"-compliant CRS's are allowed. Anything else is prohibited, "regardless of what stamp/seal of approval these booster or harness devices carry." [note: DT reader Debbie just flew Alaska, and all the flight attendants were stoked to see the new CARES, so go figure.]
  • Frontier Airlines: nothing. "We offer kid-friendly shows, DIRECTV®service, movies and Disney programming..."
  • Hawaiian Air: same as Alaska, only FMVSS-approved car seats. BUT, note the flip: "Aseat [sic] must be purchased for infants traveling in a child restraint seat," not the other way around.
  • USA 3000 Airlines, which I only know from their billboards on the New Jersey Turnpike, totally freelances their policy:
    It is recommended that a child under 40lbs travel in a child restraint device (car seat)*.

    *Many child safety seats that are designed for use in automobiles are also appropriate for use on aircraft. Appropriate devices should have hard sides and backs, include integrated shoulder straps, and secure to a passenger seat via channels through which the seatbelt is threaded and attached.

  • Virgin America, the newest airline in town, looks like it cut & pasted its policy from a less-than-up-to-date competitor:
    Infants, other than lap children, must ride in an FAA approved Child Restraint System (CRTS), provided by the responsible guest.

    Virgin America will accept approved infant/child restraint systems (car seats) when the accompanying adult has purchased aseat [sic] for the infant/child...

    Child restraint systems must be approved for use on aircraft...

    Unacceptable restraint systems:
    * Unlabeled child safety seats or safety seats manufactured before January, 1981 cannot be used.
    * Vest and harness type child restrains [hey, that's the same typo as USAir! -ed.] or belly belts cannot be used during taxi, takeoff or landing...

    Child Restraint Systems are not required but Virgin America must allow their use when requested and provided by the child's parent or guardian and they have obtained a ticket for the extra seat required to accommodate the restraint system. Any child safety seat that has the correct labeling will be accepted for use on Virgin America provided the following procedures are followed...

    I've asked Virgin for a clarification on their policy, and on their view of CARES. It goes without saying that you will want to call your airline before you fly, print out everything you can, and take every piece of safety equipment you own to the gate with you, along with some fine chocolates for the purser. See? It's easy!

    Aug. 2005: FAA Announces Decision on Child Safety Seats [faa.gov]
    Sep. 2006: FAA Approves New Child Safety Device [faa.gov]

    posted December 19, 2007 3:37 PM | add to del.icio.us | digg this

  • comments

    The FAA ruling in 2005 wasn't a change; it was a failure to make a requested change. That is, they have never required restraints. You've always been free to carry your under-2 child in your arms or put your 2-and-up child in a standard seatbelt.

    They have, however, always required airlines to allow restraints, which is sadly better than most other countries.

    And trust me, I flew with a baby in 2004, and there has been no change for the worse in airline policies and the statement of them... there wasn't a lot of room for change for the worse, actually.

    posted by: Elizabeth Zwicky at December 19, 2007 5:04 PM

    I'm kind of curious why this is such a big issue for you either way, given that 1) airplanes almost never crash and 2) when they do, seatbelts aren't going to save your ass. Most commercial airline crashes either result in the death of everyone on board, or everyone walking away. The seatbelts are mostly there to keep you from hitting the ceiling during severe turbulence (which itself is much rarer because of improved radar).

    If they really expected the belt to help you in a crash, they'd at least put in a three point belt to keep you from smashing your skull on the seat that's 12" in front of your face.

    [it's a big deal mostly because it's a PITA to haul a car seat around, and because it's two more ways that airlines suck that need pointing out. Also, it's a way the FAA totally punts on what seems like a no-brainer area of governmental standardmaking that I frankly had no idea about. If this is not news to some people, I thank them for their patience while I get up to speed. And anyway, there are plenty of injuries to be avoided while flying and wearing a seatbelt so you don't go bouncing around the cabin when the plan hits turbulence or suddenly drops 1,000 ft. But mostly it's about dads hauling carseats around when they could've checked them all along. -ed.]

    posted by: Scott at December 19, 2007 5:21 PM

    OK, but you can still put the lap belt on a kid and that will keep them from bouncing around. We've never carried a car seat on a plane. When ours was a baby and too small to sit in a seat, she was either held or in a pouch. I can certainly see why people would rather use an infant seat though, especially on a really long flight.

    But I honestly just don't see the need for something like the CARES. You can't use it with a little baby to replace an infant seat. It's a neat idea from a technical standpoint, but inadequate belts are just not a major (or even minor) cause of death or injury on large commercial planes.

    And as someone who's had to deal with the FAA, yes, they suck.

    [point taken. Even without the inconsistency and hassle, I can easily see the case against a CARES--expensive, you need a carseat when you get there, kid likes familiar seat--as for it. But for the people who go the CARES route, the hassle and uncertainty seem like unnecessary stress for what's supposed to be a more convenient way to travel. -ed.]

    posted by: Scott at December 19, 2007 6:13 PM

    It is not legal to have your baby in a pouch if restraints are required. It is legal to have the baby unrestrained. The pouch would be an unauthorized restraint device. You may have an authorized restraint device, or none.

    Airplanes hardly ever crash, true. When they do restraints won't help, false. (Particularly if the alternative is being an unrestrained baby!) Here's a scholarly article about the odds for unrestrained babies and crashes: http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/abstract/71/11/1242?ijkey=4fdaa3b3fef0e9fe63b05fd0e99c70667f451c9a&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha

    I seem to have misplaced the heartbreaking URL comparing two similar crashes; unrestrained baby died, mother walked away, followed by carseat baby OK, mother breaks leg.

    It is true that the CARES harness covers a small piece of the problem; it's the under-2s who are rarely big enough and who are completely unrestrained that are the pressing issue. But I can tell you that a CARES makes a significant difference to keeping your 3-year old actually in the seat, in level flight. I hope never to test one in a crash...

    posted by: Elizabeth Zwicky at December 19, 2007 7:12 PM

    Admittedly, it was a much smaller aircraft, but it was the story of a Canadian toddler who survived a crash because her grandfather (who died in the crash) insisted she be in the car seat that convinced me I always want to have a car seat on an airplane. And I do think the familiarity of the car seat kept my kids relatively calm during a long flight, as opposed to the two unrestrained little hellions across the aisle.

    posted by: Joan at December 19, 2007 9:14 PM

    Setting aside the possibility of airplane crashes for a moment, there's the significant (for some) issue of keeping your toddler in his seat, as alluded to by Elizabeth. When we lost our carseat on one trip and flew with my then 18-month-old son, he sat next to me and played with the airline seatbelt until he figured out how to unbuckle it. I have never seen a CARES harness in person, but it looks like something that would possibly be a bit more effective--yet much easier to take on board than a carseat.

    posted by: Medium Bear at December 19, 2007 9:14 PM

    Virgin America policy seems kind of weird: I flew Virgin Atlantic from JFK to London when my son was 8 months old and they provided us with a belly belt and made him wear it during taxi, takeoff, and landing (even though it meant waking him up to put it on--doesn't seem very "optional" to me). So it seems odd that they would not allow an FAA-approved CARES device in the US.

    posted by: Wendy at December 20, 2007 12:07 AM

    To add to Greg's advice, I would say try to get the airline's customer service to faxor mail you a written statement that approves the use of CARES before you get on the plane with it, because it won't mean anything to the purser when you tell them that someone from their airline told you it was OK, if you don't have anything in writing to back that up. Of course, as mentioned previously, on the plane itself about the only one who can overrule the purser is the captain, so if he or she wants to give you some arbtrary ruling that is different from their company's policy, they can and probably will. They may be overruled later by their airline,
    but a lot of good that does you if you've missed your flight.

    Not withstanding the unbridled power of flight attendants, the thing that bothers me most is why any rational person would insist that I keep my child unrestrained on my lap rather than in an FAA-approved four-point safety belt in her own seat.

    posted by: Darren at December 20, 2007 6:20 AM

    I see my "to Grandma's house" carrier, Alaska, does not allow it for some stupid reason. All the more reason to take the train next year. I'm going to drop AS a line.

    [but someone just used one on Alaska, and the flight attendants were stoked. If you're determined, I'd try what Darren suggested, print out stuff and see if the Cust Svc people will fax you something. -ed.]

    posted by: Dynastar at December 20, 2007 10:00 AM

    Hmm, interesting. Looking ate the CARES website, they don't think any airline has the right to deny your right to use CARES. They refer to FAA Advisory Circular 120-87A, which says

    "Under the provisions in parts 121, 125, and 135, no certificate holder may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS (Child Restraint System) when the parent/guardian purchases a ticket for the child."

    posted by: Dynastar at December 20, 2007 10:10 AM

    Dynastar references the CARES website and this is the link to the FAA circular.


    See section 10.e.
    How can this jibe with the carrier superceding the FAA?

    Interestingly the federal regulations state:


    (b) Seats manufactured to U.S. standards on or after February 26, 1985, must bear two labels:

    ( 1 ) “This child restraint system conforms to all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards”; and

    and section 135.128.(C)(2) states:

    (2) Except as required in paragraph (b)(1) of this section, no certificate holder may prohibit a child, if requested by the child's parent, guardian, or designated attendant, from occupying a child restraint system furnished by the child's parent, guardian, or designated attendant provided:

    i) The child holds a ticket for an approved seat or berth or such seat or berth is otherwise made available by the certificate holder for the child's use;

    (ii) The requirements of paragraph (a)(2)(i) of this section are met;

    (iii) The requirements of paragraph (a)(2)(iii) of this section are met; and

    (iv) The child restraint system has one or more of the labels described in paragraphs (a)(2)(ii)(A) through (a)(2)(ii)(C) of this section.

    All this can be found at The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.


    What this all means of course, is that there is a Federal lawsuit in the offing. Someone misses their plane for politely not deferring to the "waitress in the sky" and, Taa Daa, an airline is getting fined and smacked with substantial out-of-court settlements. Batter Up!

    posted by: arlopop at December 20, 2007 12:43 PM

    One more note...
    The regs I cited above are current as of December 18, 2007.
    Whether or not the FAA chooses to enforce the regs is of course a different matter altogether but that is why a federal court is where this is going. When a governmental agency refuse to enforce its own regs - regs put into place to ensure the safety of us all - the courts get involved. We've seen it with the EPA and OSHA. This is no different.

    [I will personally shake the hand of the dad who survives Christmas travel and sues the airline for not following the FAA regs. In fact, he'll probably be sleeping on my living room floor because his wife, parents, and/or in-laws will not be talking to him for several months. just saying. -ed.]

    posted by: arlopop at December 20, 2007 1:41 PM

    Virgin Atlantic is a UK-owned carrier. It must follow UK rules, thus the belly belt. (US rules are like democracy; terrible, but the alternatives are even worse.) Virgin America is an American-owned carrier and must, theoretically, follow FAA regulations.

    I keep meaning to update links and formatting on this, but here's what I know about US/UK/Canadian/Australian/NZ rules on kids and carseats: http://www.otoh.org/xwiki/bin/view/Parenting/FlyingWithCarSeats

    I have not had luck finding on-line regulations for non-English languages (even EU regs which would be guaranteed to be in some language I can read as French works for me, too).

    posted by: Elizabeth Zwicky at December 20, 2007 7:23 PM

    Well, we traveled from DCA to DFW and back over the holidays and used the CARES harness both ways with no problems. On the flight from DCA to DFW, it was the crowded and busy and a full flight so the attendants didn't pay much attention. They were busy discussing how to deal with being overweight on the flight. They eventually decided to take bags off the flight and let 4 more people onboard. Unfortunately one of my bags (with all my clothes and all of my 1yr old son's clothes) was one of the ones "delayed". (that's a whole other story)

    On the flight from DFW to DCA it was less crazy and the attendant came over after I strapped the kid in and said "oh, cool. You have one of the harnesses. It's the only approved harness for air travel. We've read about them but this is my first time seeing one. Remember, it has to be cinched tight for takeoff and landing but you can loosen it during the flight if you want." So apparently they were briefed on it and even given some instructions for them. It was a nice flight both ways.

    posted by: John at December 31, 2007 11:04 AM
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