Should child safety seats be required on airplanes?

Experts say the safest place for a child on an airplane is in a safety seat and not on a lap. (Kaspars Grinvalds/Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds

Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds

Experts say the safest place for a child on an airplane is in a safety seat and not on a lap. (Kaspars Grinvalds/Dreamstime/TNS)

When booking flights for family vacations, many parents of infants and toddlers will do the opposite of what international and domestic airline regulatory agencies, transportation safety agencies, and many safety experts recommend.

They will plan to hold their children in their laps, unrestrained.

But, if anything should reinforce the need for child restraint seats on airplanes, the recent emergency landing of Southwest Flight 1380 should, said Jan Brown, a former flight attendant who survived the 1989 crash landing of Philadelphia-bound United Flight 232, which killed 111 passengers in Sioux City, Iowa.

Metal fragments from an exploding engine shot into the Southwest plane, which was cruising at 32,500 feet. The force from the dramatic change in cabin pressure partially sucked passenger Jennifer Riordan, 43, headfirst through a broken window. Riordan, who had been wearing a seat belt, died from blunt trauma to her head, neck and torso. The plane, on a scheduled flight from New York to Dallas, made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

“If there had been a lap child anywhere in the area, that lap child would have gone out that window,” said Brown, 77, in a phone interview from her Chicago-area home.

For 28 years, Brown has been fighting to make child restraint seats mandatory on all flights but has seen little support from the airline industry.

In 1989, Brown was working on a DC-10 airplane carrying 285 passengers when a broken fan blade in a rear engine disintegrated, causing a catastrophic engine failure. When it came time to land the crippled aircraft, flight attendants instructed passengers to adopt the crash position. Four parents, including Sylvia Tsao, were instructed to put their lap children on the floor, the protocol at the time.

Tsao’s 22-month-old son, Evan, got separated from his mother as the plane somersaulted down the runway. He died of smoke inhalation, according to reports from the National Transportation Safety Board.

“Everybody in his area survived,” Brown said. “If he had been in a seat he would have survived.”

What upsets Brown most is that parents are given a false impression of safety by the fact that children under 2 are allowed to fly free and unrestrained.

While the Federal Aviation Administration, NTSB, International Civil Aviation Organization and most airlines, including Southwest, strongly recommend that infants and small children be secured in a proper safety seat, none require it.

Families generally decide to carry children instead of buy them their own seats because of the cost of another seat, said Flaura Koplin Winston, director of the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

What a lot of parents don’t realize is that a child who doesn’t have a dedicated airline seat also doesn’t have a dedicated oxygen mask, she said.

Flying, however, is still far safer than driving — a far more common mode of transportation than air travel, especially for kids. Though safety seats are mandated in cars, the leading cause of death for children is motor-vehicle accidents, she said.

One alternative to hauling a cumbersome child restraint seat through airport security and onto a plane is a harnesslike restraint, called CARES. The restraint, made by AmSafe, a manufacturer of safety restraint products, is FAA-approved for children weighing 22 to 44 pounds.

“We believe that the safest place for a child under the age of 2 is in its own car seat, strapped in,” said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. That group has maintained that position since the United crash in 1989, she said.

Garland said the organization is working with ICAO to improve safety standards for child restraint seats across the globe. So far, no country mandates their use on airplanes, she said.

Garland pointed to Emma Tourtellotte, whose life likely was saved by a child safety seat. After the 1997 engine explosion of Delta Air Lines Flight 1288, debris flew through the fuselage into the cabin, killing two passengers. A section of the plane’s paneling hit the wings of Tourtellotte’s child seat.

David Tourtellotte, the child’s father, testified in a 1997 congressional hearing that he initially balked at wife Kathleen’s wish to buy an extra seat.

“I thank the Lord that I had the good sense to listen to Kathleen,” Tourtellotte testified. “Otherwise we might not have Emma with us today.”

Matt Lykins, an aviation safety investigator with Robson Forensic experts, said engine explosions like the one this week on Southwest Flight 1380 are “extremely rare.” Not all decompression events will equate to what happened on Tuesday, he said.

“Turbulence is a much more common event than what they experienced with Southwest,” he said. Lykins, a parent, said he would buy a seat for a child under 2 years.

“I see the aftermath of bad days in aviation,” he said.