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Baby on Board: Should babies and toddlers be required to fly in child safety seats?

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Nov. 20, 2014)- If you’re flying with your little ones, it’s a warning you need to hear.

“It is common sense,” said one safety advocate. “You’re always going to be safer buckled up.”

But every day, many babies and toddlers aren’t buckled up. They get to fly for free in their parents’ laps if they’re under the age of two. It’s the way it’s always been, but some people say it just isn’t safe, and that children need to protected from the dangers of turbulence or a hard landing.

Officially, the FAA doesn’t recommend flying with a child in your lap, though no specific requirements are in place. But now, many advocates are making a push to require these child seats on airplanes, and get us parents to re-think a long standing practice that they call a danger to our kids.

“They will tell you, this is not a good practice, but they will not enforce it,” said safety advocate Jennifer Stansberry Miller of Fishers.

“I don’t know if it should be required, but it should be maybe encouraged and made as easy as possible,” said parent Sara Ovin, who brought a child seat on a recent flight for her young daughter. “Hopefully we’re prepared for anything that happens.”

Still, many parents take their little ones on the plane as lap children, and get the car seat back at baggage claim.

“When I go to the airport and see parents bringing their children on board, and then I see them get the car seat from baggage claim, that’s been in the cargo hold, and then put their child in the car, it literally does not make any sense,” said former NTSB chair Debbie Hersman, who now serves as president of the National Safety Council. “That one year old deserves protecting just as much as the three-year old.”

Lately, Hersman has been calling for a change in policy, pointing to statistics which show 85 percent of parents who fly with kids under the age of two do so with those kids on their laps.

“It is hard to tell people what they should or should not do,” said Hersman. “But I’ll be honest, before I came to the NTSB, many years ago, I had traveled and carried my own child on my lap. Once I learned about the safety risks and what was best, I couldn’t believe what I had done.”

And in fact, we’ve done it too. But I don’t think I’d do it again after hearing Jan Brown share her story. Brown was a flight attendant on plane that crashed in Iowa in 1989.

“The number two engine exploded,” recalled Brown. “When we stabilized, I saw a mother holding her lap child, her 22-month old son and she looked like she was going into panic.”

Soon, their plane crashed to the ground, killing 111 people, including that 22-month-old.

“We were way over speed and we simply absolutely smashed into the earth,” said Brown. “My section flipped over, I was engulfed in fire, and the first person I encountered was the mother of this 22-month old boy… she just looked up at me and said ‘you told me to put my baby on the floor and it would be okay, and he’s gone.’”

“It’s very hard at the end of the day to know that you’re a statistic,” said Stansberry-Miller, who’s been a safety advocate since the death of her brother in a plane crash 20 years ago.

“You’re being strapped in a metal tube going 500 miles an hour,” she said. “Everything else on that plane is strapped down except your kid. How is that right?”

“Anytime you get mobile with a child, you have forces of trauma that come into play,” said Purdue professor Tim Ropp, who used to work in the aviation industry. Ropp says the big concern is turbulence, especially after several severe cases of turbulence in the news, including a recent flight in which a baby was thrown across the cabin.

“You’re not going to be able to hold on to a child,” said Ropp. “Or if you dribble off the runway, there are enough forces involved where you’re not going to be able to hold on to them.”

“When you have G-forces, a 20 pound baby could suddenly become a 100 pound missile,” said Brown. “The airlines and FAA allow it, so it’s normal conclusion that if it’s allowed, it must be safe. I’ve had people tell me that and I say 'your child should be in a car seat.'”

But FAA officials say there's another side to the story. They feel a requirement would lead more parents to drive, putting children in greater danger.

FAA officials sent us the following statement about their policy:

"The FAA continues to encourage the use of child restraint systems (CRS) by urging parents and guardians to secure children in a separate seat position in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size. While we encourage the use of CRSs, the FAA believes that requiring the use of a CRS, which would require all families traveling with children under 2 years of age to purchase tickets for those children, would significantly raise the net price of travel for those families. Such price increases would divert some family travel from the air transportation system to the highway system, and entire families would be subject to far higher fatality rates, which would produce a net increase in overall transportation fatalities."

Though advocates like Brown and Hersman dispute that point, FAA officials also point to a 2012 study, involving economic and safety data on families flying with small children. The FAA says the study supports the agency’s long standing position that a government mandate would result in an unintended consequence of a net increase in transportation fatalities. More information on the study is available on the DOT website.

The FAA has also posted more recommendations and information for families and travelers on the FAA web site.

Brown has also started a web site for her advocacy campaign, called Safe Seats for Every Air Traveler.