Bigger lap babies, smaller planes — Is it time to rethink the rules?

by Janice Hough on August 30, 2010

The flight from Kayseri, Turkey to Istanbul was only an hour, but it felt much longer to anyone seated within earshot of one particular family.

The family in question had an older child — what must have been a 23 month old, because he was clearly a “lap baby” with no seat.

On Turkish Air flights they check passports for everyone, so the “baby” couldn’t have been one of those lap children often called “babies” in the U.S., who are reading books on their own.

In this case, the problem was not just that the boy was cranky, but he had nowhere to sit, and he was clearly too big for his mother to hold onto easily. He kept trying to get down on the floor, up on the seat, wherever, wailing the entire time.

It was one of the few times I have been glad to have a connecting flight and not a direct flight. But as luck would have it the same family showed up on my connecting flight to London — across the aisle.

And yes, the child cried and complained almost the whole four-hour second flight, until he finally fell asleep across both his parents’ laps. (The older child, who was probably about 8 years old, never said a word, or offered to help. Presumably he was trying to pretend he didn’t know these people.

This isn’t the usual complaining-about-children post. We all know they can ruin flights. But, it’s hard to imagine a worse situation for a large toddler.

Seat pitch on Turkish Air is about 30-31 inches. When the child was on his mother or father’s lap, the kid’s feet hit the seat back. There really wasn’t room for him on the floor either.

In fact, while he could barely stand in the space between the seats, one outburst in fact was triggered by the mother letting him stand on the floor, and then being unable to pull him but because the person in front had slightly reclined their seat.

Simply speaking, he was WAY too big to be a lap baby, no matter how old he was.

Airline pitch and seat size have both come down a few inches at least across the board over the years. While the average person’s size has gone up, especially in the U.S. — including for babies.

As anyone who has recently purchased clothing for a baby gift knows, the sizes are often ridiculously inaccurate. Six-month-old babies often wear clothes for a one-year-old, or even a larger size. But the rule for buying an airline ticket hasn’t changed. Kids under two can fly free, or for taxes alone on international flights.

The FAA looked into mandating tickets for babies for safety reasons some years back, and decided that the additional cost would mean more deaths as parents chose to drive instead.

What I’m proposing is a new babies-on-planes rule. Instead of scrapping the free infant rule, shouldn’t it be change to “free under 1 year,” or “free under 20 pounds.” (Yes, I know the latter, while more practical in many ways would likely have many screaming discrimination against heavy people.)

The rule could require airlines to offer a discount for children between 12 and 24 months, or perhaps have them sell tickets like Southwest does for large people, buy the extra seat up front, and get money back if there are empty seats.

In any case, the current situation isn’t only often unpleasant for other passengers. Plus it’s simply not safe. Passengers can’t put a laptop in the seatback because it could be dangerous. Heck, laptops, unlike people, are actually getting SMALLER. How much more dangerous would a 30-pound child flying around the aircraft cabin be?

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  • John

    I’ve flown multiple times when my girls were under the age of one. Everytime they flew in their own car seat in a ticketed seat. For me, all it took was watching on of the FAA videos where the infant becomes an airborne projectile in a crash to never want to have my child as a lap child.

    Personally, its time for the practice to end. In the worst case, the infant becomes a projectile and will hurt those around them.

  • Matthew in NYC

    I’m with John. We don’t allow infants to travel unrestrained in cars, why should we allow them to do so in an airplane? I think that all passengers should have their own seat. I realize that this would be a major change and that there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it is a safety issue. Does anyone know how lap children fare during extreme turbulence?

  • CT

    Airlines should start including the 1993 Peter Weir movie “Fearless” in their IFE lineup. That might get some parents’ attention . . .

  • laura

    Actually Matthew, the FAA stuck with the current policy because so few children have ever been injured that the number is insignificant statistically. (And making them have a paid seat would hardly guarrantee they wouldn’t become airborne, almost all passengers unlatch their seat belts for some duration on the plane. Just about all children do).

    While children aren’t allowed to be unrestrained in family cars, children remain unrestrained in buses, taxis, trains and all sorts of modes of public transport.

    The problem with those advocating an end to this is that the responsibility lies with the parent to police the child, some do it well, some not at all. Much the same as some passengers observe reasonably carry-on rules, some flaunt them. I believe the FAA is trying to strike a fair balance and not penalize the millions of parents who travel with lap children without incident.

  • ton

    “The problem with those advocating an end to this is that the responsibility lies with the parent to police the child, some do it well, some not at all.: ”

    you are right but (as always there is one) it is not just the parents and the child that are involved, unlike a car there are any number of other people stuck in the same tube, anything that also involves them (even if statistically small) should not just be the parents job.

    I can understand the parents, they see the extra cost v the small risk but as janice says there is a case to be made, perhaps it is time for that family section, think of all the even tinier seats you could put in there:) now that should get the airlines on board

  • Oregoncarol

    The important point here is that while the baby would have protection during take-off and landing, if it had its own seat, most of the time the baby would likely be out of that seat being held. Babies are squirmy, needy beings who are noisy when things are uncomfortable, so traveling with them takes a lot of energy to try to keep them quiet and satisfied.

    I remember a businessman whose face blanched when he saw he had the aisle seat by the bulkhead next to me, since I was holding a 12-month little boy and my 28-month old little boy was in the window seat. We were flying from ATL-PDX and I knew he envisioned hell. However, my kids were occupied with books and toys and drinks so they caused little trouble. By the middle of the flight the man next to me was relaxed and offered to watch one of them while I took the other to the bathroom to be changed. I was lucky that I could juggle their demands and it was a tiring flight for me but my kids liked to travel and we managed. I could not have afforded that particular trip if I had needed to buy a seat for the littlest one.

  • jonathan

    @John: Amen, brother!

    Many years ago, I witnessed a lap-baby passenger flying through the air, because of a particularly hard landing in South Africa. The child was badly bruised, but survived (no thanks to his 60-lb mother, who was so petite, she obviously couldn’t hold onto him).

    From that moment, my children and now my grandchildren have always had their own ticket and FAA-approved car seat.

  • Janet

    There is not room for a baby to sit on a lap on a RJ and on some other aircraft. There is barely enough for a regular size person. Anyone sitting around anything but a very small infant is going to be kicked or squeezed. I have been around some very well behaved babies on flights, but even a sleeping baby takes up room. There needs to be a weight limit on children carried this way. Also, the idea of an unbelted child is very disturbing. Would you allow this in your car? There may be a small risk (per number of passengers vs. car travel) but do you want your child to be a victim of these percentages?

  • CT

    I don’t think you’re getting it, folks. See http://www.ntsb.gov/alerts/SA_015.pdf. It doesn’t matter how big and strong a parent is, NO ONE can hold even a 20 lb child that is being accelerated over 20 Gs, any more than you can stop a very small but fast bullet from piercing your body. F=MA. That’s what Jeff Bridges showed Rosie Perez in “Fearless.”

    If it’s not “penalizing” parents to require them to have their children in proper seats in cars (state law everywhere, even for poor people), it’s not penalizing them to require the same in planes. Just because children aren’t yet required to be restrained in buses doesn’t mean it’s safe. Buses don’t travel at 500 mph several miles above the ground, and ground-level turbulence is mild compared with the jet stream. Buses are more massive than most things they hit, so occupants are protected by the crumpling of the object being hit, decellerating slowly enough to survive.

    Your arguments that children hardly ever die in planes are silly — adults hardly ever die while flying, either. But I don’t want to be killed by an unrestrainable lap child or your laptop. Just because some folks keep their laptops out during take-off doesn’t mean we should scrap the reg that says this is illegal.

    There is nowhere that a lap child can be safely seated during take-off and landing, or severe turbulence. Parents are helpless to restrain them, kids’ soft skulls break very easily, and other passengers are sitting ducks.

    Do you really think you understand physics and safety better than the NTSB, which has been using crash test dummies for decades?

  • World Traveler

    I agree completely with this author. Having traveled with a lap child on both domestic and international flights, I have to say that I think the limit should be no more than 1 1/2 years, or some weight limit like 20-25 pounds maximum.

    However, I will admit that it was nice not to pay $$ for an extra seat, however unpleasant the flying experience. So I agree that changing the rules is really the only way to go on this issue.

    I’m actually kind of surprised that the airlines haven’t done this already — wouldn’t this be a new source of income?

  • http://www.babybair.com Greg

    Mandating car seats on planes for babies under 2 will result in over 80 additional child deaths on the highway due to parent’s choosing to drive instead of fly. Two independent university research studies have proved this. That is why the FAA will not mandate car seat. They cannot make a rule that results in higher deaths/injuries. If a parent must pay over $300 for a seat that is only used part of the time (baby is out of car seat for feeding, comforting or changing), they will choose to drive, especially on shorter routes. Car seats do not fit properly in aircraft seats, and evacuation times from a car seat are sometimes longer than the survivability window. They are designed and are supposed to be LEFT INSTALLED, in automobiles. An improperly installed baby seat is an even bigger danger to both child and other passengers. Many car seats do not fit on regional jets, and some do not fit on regular passenger aircraft. Plus, there are restrictions on which seats are permitted to accommodate car seats on planes. With planes flying full, there is no assurance that an approved seat location will even be available when a seat IS purchased.

    The Baby B’Air flight vest has been on the market for over 10 years and is designed specifically for lap babies. Baby B’Airs are easy to use and have saved several babies from injury during turbulence. The FAA currently does not allow them to be used on takeoff or landing. The CARES system is designed specifically for airplanes for use in place of a car seat, for children over age one. CARES replaces a bulky, non-fitting car seat, and is easy to use and carry when not in use. It can be used on takeoff and landing.

  • Artrina

    At least when babies/children are in cars the police have the authority to stop and ticket adults who are traveling with unrestrained/improperly restrained children in the car. How much does it take for a FA or other airline employee to tell an adult that their child is traveling improperly?
    Airlines should mandate ALL children have their own seat and as part of that ticket provide a safety seat for them. That also solves the problem of Mom and Dad wanting to have THEIR on carry on and trying to carry a diaper bag.

  • Christine

    I recently returned from a trip to Houston from Chicago on US Airways, and to say the least, it was the trip from HELL!! About five rows behind me there was a “child”…or my seat mate and I thought, was about two. This kid screamed, yelled, whined and cried during the entire flight and no amount to speaking to the mother by the flight attendant did any good.
    When we finally arrived we were shocked to see that this child was about seven or eight and his mother just smiled when the other passengers made comments as to her son’s behaviour. The next time I travel I will be more vocal when this happens.

  • Linda

    I was on a 3-1/2 hr flight from Phx to Sea and when I got on the plane there was a couple in my row with 2 small children. I don’t think they liked me sitting next to them (assigned seat and full flight) as I think they were planning on having an empty seat between them to stretch out. Both the parents were of a substantial size and the room for the babies was not a lot (I’m no skinny-minnie either). The kids fortunately weren’t restless and settled in well but I still was given looks from the parents cause I could see they weren’t comfortable. Too bad, buy seats for your children or find another way to travel.

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