Big babies on planes — should airlines require proof of age?

by Janice Hough on December 20, 2010


The young couple on our red-eye flight to Charlotte were clearly at the end of their rope. Before the door had even closed, so were most of the people within earshot.

While they seemed to be very nice people, and were clearly trying their best, they were traveling with two very young children — “Lap babies.” The smaller one looked to be about a year old, the larger one, older. And, he had very well developed lungs.

Originally the parents and the two children were seated in one row. But since the flight was 100 percent full, there wasn’t a free seat for either of the children. Airplanes are apparently built with four oxygen masks per row of three seats, allowing for ONE baby. So the flight attendants had to move the mother with one baby to a nearby row. (You learn something new every day.)

That kid wasn’t happy. He didn’t have a seat. He wasn’t next to daddy. He eventually went from whimpering to screaming, loudly. The mother tried to feed him a snack. The flight attendant tried to offer him juice. The parents eventually swapped the children. Nothing worked. By the time another passenger had moved to a middle seat to put the parents closer together, he was so hysterical nothing would calm him down.

At this point most of the passengers in the area would have far preferred to travel with snakes than these babies, or at least one of the crumb snatchers.

The parents, especially the mother, were embarrassed and apologetic. She explained that the little boy was two, and since he had turned two, seemed to have a nonstop case of the “terrible twos.” (Apparently she forgot or didn’t care that she wasn’t supposed to admit he was two, since she had brought him on the plane as a one year old.)

The child screamed for most of the first hour of the flight, and then finally fell asleep. At that point everyone within earshot was exhausted.

Now, this sort of thing could have happened with year-old twins or a newborn and another child under two. It’s not just that the little boy was older that caused the problem, but his age certainly didn’t help. He was not only dealing with the “terrible twos” but the fact that he was just too big to be comfortable.

On Southwest, this wouldn’t have happened, as the airline officially requires birth certificates from children, which makes sure “lap babies” are indeed babies. Most other airlines do not.

And here’s the question? Should all airlines require proof of age for children? In this case, I had some sympathy, at least at the beginning, for the parents. They were heading to “visit Grandma,” and said they were on the red-eye for the cheap fares. So they might not have been able to afford a third ticket.

To add to it, the father was a military man. So as noted, I had some sympathy. On the other hand, their son’s screaming probably kept at least a third of the plane from falling asleep. Plus, it probably wasn’t the safest situation.

A policy requiring birth certificates would probably keep planes and their passengers saner. But it would also probably keep some young families from traveling. In a perfect world there would be discounts for young children, but airline margins are so thin these days, that’s probably unlikely to happen.

So what do you think Consumer Traveler readers? Should there be an overall airline policy on birth certificates for babies? And should parents who can’t or won’t produce them be required to buy another seat or be denied boarding? Would love to hear your ideas in comments.

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  • Matilda

    Yes, there should be a policy in place requiring proof of age. There is nothing to be done about an upset child on a plane when the parent is obviously putting in their best effort, but from a safety standpoint, older children are just not safe on a parent’s lap. I would think these same parents wouldn’t put their child in a too small car seat, so why would they put in them in a too small airplane seat on their lap?

  • SirWired

    Hmmm…. given the safety implications, and the rights of the other passengers to have a calm and restful flight, I don’t think requesting a birth certificate is out of the question, as long as it is made CRYSTAL clear during the reservation process that the certificate might be required if there are any questions about the age of the lap child (and there should have been questions here… two babies, BOTH “under a year old”? Possible, especially with a blended family, but unlikely.) This seems reasonable to request, given the free ride the child is getting.

    Also there should be a policy that on a round-trip itinerary, if the certificate was not requested outbound, it won’t be requested on the return flight. I can’t imagine the PR nightmare that would ensue if an airline tried to deny a trip home due to no birth cert for a family that had no problems on the outbound leg. Especially if somebody ended up making a bad judgment call and child was indeed under a year.

  • Jeff L

    Although it may limit some travel, I am opposed to the concept of lap babies at all..

    Unless they have some kind of harness, there is NO way that a parent can hold on to a child during a severe turbulence incident. Yes, they are rare, but…

    If you drove without a child seat for a 1 year old, you’d get a ticket and maybe charged. You can’t keep a Kindle out during takeoff because in case of an incident it might become a projectile hazard. But a 8-10 lb. human, that’s still OK.

    Age checks aside, every flier on that plane should have their own seat, with the appropriate safety equipment.

  • Aglaia761

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask parents to prove their child is a certain age.

    If I have give the TSA my birthdate and show my ID or Drivers license to board, why shouldn’t kids have to show a birth certificate.

  • Matthew in NYC

    I don’t think it is safe to carry a child of any age on a lap. All passengers should have seats and very young passengers should have additional restraints, like those used in cars. I would be surprised if all lap children have some kind of restraint, so during turbulence, there is a real possibility that a baby or toddler, traveling as a lap child, will become a projectile. I would like to see airlines offer discounts for children, but in the age of airline regulation that is unlikely to be offerend voluntarily by the airlines.

    I can’t imagine trying to keep any of my nephews or nieces happy as 18 month old toddlers on my lap for a six-hour transcontinental red eye flight. They might fall asleep, but they might not.

    So, if airlines are not going to mandate a seat for every passenger, they should require proof of age. An unhappy two year old is a problem for everyone, in an emergency, or even in turbulence, s/he become dangerous for everyone.

  • Janet

    I noticed how your photo is a smallish woman and a small baby. That’s far removed from reality. Now show the proportion of the seat and lack of room and there’s the problem. They absolutely should check the age of the baby. There simply is not room for an adult and a toddler in this era of air travel. Add the safety risk of turbulance or emergencies and this is a recipe for injury.

  • AKflyer

    I don’t believe any lap children should be allowed. Our national transportation safety experts at the NTSB agree. The FAA is stuck trying to keep the public happy, though, even if it means ignoring the laws of physics. Fact: even a small, 12 pound baby will be impossible to hold on to in a crash landing or during severe in-air turbulence. Not only is the child — with its proportionally heavy head, undeveloped muscles, and soft cranium — doomed, but so is anyone hit by the child, who will become a 12-lb flying object. The FAA doesn’t let us keep much lighter laptops out during landing and takeoffs, but turns a blind eye to the reality of lap children. It’s time to demand rationality from that political whore of an agency.

    When seat belts and child safety seats were first required for cars, people protested, saying poor people wouldn’t be able to afford them. The NTSB provided evidence of the lethal consequences of no restraints and the laws were enacted. There is no right for a family with young children to be able to fly cheaply. I live in AK, where 50% of the population has out of state ties, but that does not mean the US gov’t or airlines somehow owe it to my fellow residents to enable them to take the whole family on a trip they can only afford if half the kids sit in parents’ laps (our flights are 100% full in and out of the state). Fly grandma up here instead, or wait a couple of years. It didn’t kill our immigrant ancestors to go without seeing grandparents every few months and now we have Skype.

    Bottom line: I don’t want to sit anywhere near a lap child due to concerns about my own life.

  • ML147000

    Children under a certain age and height/weight are required to be in car seats in vehicles that travel far slower than airplanes. This rule should also be placed into effect for the airline industry. During an emergency a “lap child” becomes a missile as was proven with the United flight in Iowa many years ago.
    With the billions the airline industry is making in baggage fees, they could well afford to offer a discounted seat for a child fare and rental of a child safety seat.
    Oh…but that would make sense, so we can forget that ever happening!

  • Sara

    Let’s face it, none of us want to pay more for anything these days… but if we were truly looking to make choices that were safer and more convenient for all travelers (albeit not cheaper), we would make all children buy tickets and travel in a car seat. That would, in turn, negate the need for any verification of age since the cost would be the same. I find that the regulations for lap children are absolutely ridiculous and if most people new the true danger their children would be in the case of an emergency, they would not travel with lap babies.

  • http://traytables-travels.blogspot.com Amelia Kelly

    I agree with the poster who mentioned ‘rights’ to fly. While it;s ‘nice’ for the little ones to visit grandma and granddad, I don’t think it’s fair to expect the airline or other passengers to subsidise the cost of a seat for people with kids. Most parents pay a seat for the child because they realise the consequences of the child being uncomfortable, not to mention the safety implications.

    Sure the airlines might be making “billions in baggage fees”, but fares are also cheaper than they were 20 to 30 years ago. People want to fly cheap but don’t want to pay for the seats they use. Sorry but flying is not a right, it’s a service just like anything else that you pay for.

    I don’t want to pay more for my ticket just because someone else chooses to have five kids. No I’m not a child hater, I just believe in the supply and demand- if you want it, pay for it. Same as if I want business class, I pay full fare to fly it (I do not get J class travel perks) or I fly economy.

    Kids should be on seats from 2 up, or using at least a loop belt under the age of two, they’re better than nothing.

    The FAA do not enforce them, I think most parents would rather the chance of injuring their own child in a crash than the almost certainty that the child would die on impact from being unrestrained in any way at all! Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the UK CAA seem to agree.

  • http://www.FlyForLess.ca FlyForLess

    I have to agree with Sara 100%. As soon as a baby is born, it is expensive. Diapers and clothes and food, and it doesn’t stop until they grow up and move out of the house (and not even then, sometimes). So, requiring an airline ticket purchase for an infant of any age, from newborn to 1 year and 11 months should be mandatory from a legal perspective, but considered just the “cost of doing (family) business” when a family is travelling.

    And, airline seats are already a tight squeeze in the coach/economy section. With a baby on your lap, it is difficult to eat a meal, get something from your carry-on bag, and can even become uncomfortable after hours of holding a sleeping (or active) child on your lap. I recommend to every parent, even without any legal requirements, to purchase a seat for their infant. Just book a “child” seat, even if that is identified as “age 2 and above”. It makes for a safer and more comfortable travel experience for everybody!

  • SirWired

    Jeff L, the FAA is well aware that a lap child is in much more danger than one in a proper restraint. You are correct that the chance of holding onto a baby in a severe (but survivable) accident is approx. zero.

    However, since air travel is far safer than automobile travel, (you are more likely to die on the drive to the airport than while on the plane) the FAA has made the decision that even if this policy results additional injuries or fatalities in the event of an accident, if more people fly (vs. drive), there is a net benefit to safety because those same children are now not dying on long-haul (and extremely dangerous in comparison) car trips.

  • John Baker

    @SirWired – I agree with you that the FAA did a cost/benefit analysis. I just disagree with you on what they looked at.

    Since the FAA has the duel role of promoting and regulating the industry, more often than not, cost vs safety enters the equation. In this case, the airlines think they’ll be a high cost in lost revenue due to families not flying vs minimal safety increase. As most often happens, the airlines overrule to NTSB.

    And for the record, my kids, who all flew as infants, always flew in a car seat or a restraint (as they got older) and never as a lap child.

  • Michael

    We’ve traveled extensively with our children (now 7 years, 5 years and 8 months), and we’ve always flown with them as lap children until they’re two. We fly enough that the older two have status, and they’ve been complemented for their good behavior when flying.

    We only had trouble with them as lap children once, and that was with AirTran shortly before my 5 year old turned 2. When we got to the airport, they said that if we didn’t have a birth certificate, we would have to buy a ticket for her. We did. (It was more than our other three tickets combined.) On the plane, the flight attendant refused to let us use the seat since she wasn’t 2. We’ve never flown AirTran since then.

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  • hooder

    Proof of age should be mandatory on each and every flight no matter where you are flying. Flying is now so cheap that most people can afford it. It is no longer a luxury. If it is the law to put a child in a car or booster seat until they become a certain age or weight then they should also be shown the same safety measures on an airplane. Airlines should be required to provide safety seats for children at no cost to the passengers.

  • Anne Wiggins

    I don’t think age is the problem. Some children will scream. I have traveled with children who had their own seat and yet they screamed, threw food on the floor and refused to stay seated–making it impossible for anyone on the plane to ignore. I have also traveled with well-behaved children. I know families want to take the children to see grandparents. This may be a problem with no solution. Another hazard of air travel.

  • ARB

    Enough crying babies already! I don;t want to feel like I’m stuck in a nursery for hours on end! It;s high time airlines thought about the adults wanting to travel normally and not be stressed out by kids being noisy and annoying, which can be compared to being subjected to second hand smoke in the old days. That changed, so why can;t this? They have to come up with a kids section, much like a day care centre at an office. There wouldn’t be much investment, so there’s no reason why families shouldn’t be travelling at the back of the plane, separate from those of us who simply want to be left in peace.

  • Susanne

    I have no patience for babies at all, nor for any child not old or well-behaved enough to be quiet and sit still. We need a childfree section and a child-burdened section on every flight. If you want to have kids, fine. I would never tell you not to. But don’t inflict them on the rest of us. I would pay more if it guaranteed I didn’t have to listen to screaming, have my seat kicked, and get no cooperation from parents who think they are entitled to screw up everyone else’s day. No, your kid isn’t cute with pureed food all over its face, shrieking like a jackhammer. And if it’s a “lap baby,” it had better stay there. Airlines should definitely check for age, charge properly, and enforce both safety rules and the manners that are needed to endure a flight, which is miserable enough without uncontrollable kids.

  • FL Traveler

    I say yes – require a birth certificate. Since my reasons are already mentioned by others (safety is paramount!!) I will not repeat them. One point I do not see: that inorder to get a Senior Rate, one must show proof of age. Why should it be any different at the other end of the age spectrum? (FYI: I am neither a senior nor a parent of a young child).

  • Ed

    Perhaps not so much by age, but more by weight! Some smaller children can be seated on a parent’s lap when they are older, more comfortably than others.

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  • Nanaboat4

    Absolutely they should show proof.  I paid when my granddaughter was just 2 monthw past two  If you have rules,enforce them!

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  • http://twitter.com/TalesMiddleSeat Evelyn Carnate

    Totally agree that the airline should enforce their rules.  

  • Anonymous

    I personally don’t like the idea of toting around a birth certificate when traveling. If one gets lost or stolen, there’s the possibility of the document being used for identity theft. An 8.5″x11″ piece of paper is also unwieldy to carry.

    While Southwest only mentions a birth certificate as proof of age to allow a lap infant, I’m pretty sure that they will allow for other forms of government issued photo ID. One can get a US passport or passport card for a child of any age. Most states (including California) will issue a non driver license photo ID for a child of any age. My kid has flown on Southwest as a lap infant, and a US passport card was used as proof of age.

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