Commentary: Airlines Make Kiddie Seats Mandatory

Every time I face air travel with my daughter, now 2 1/2, I'm tempted to guzzle martinis. I have to drag a 29-pound kid, 50-pound suitcase, backpack with diapers and toys--and a 13-pound, 31-inch-long child safety seat. Airlines should spare me and other parents the effort and provide kid seats--gratis. Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration should order them to do this for convenience, certainly, but also safety.

Most U.S. carriers now allow parents to bring babies up to 2 aboard free if they hold them on their laps. That cost-saving can lead to disaster. During turbulence or a crash, babies become missiles. Witness the death of 23-month-old Evan Tsao, whose mom tried desperately to pin him to the cabin floor of U.S. Airways Flight 232 as it cartwheeled down the runway in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. All told, nine "lap kids" were killed on U.S. flights from 1978 to 1994, says the FAA, adding that five would have lived had they been in seats with restraints.

The FAA is aware of the problem. This year, it probably will require child restraints for kids under 2. Most likely, parents would have to provide them. But many car seats won't snap snugly onto an airplane seat. Last time I flew, I struggled for 10 perspiration-soaked minutes with a safety belt--and learned that lesson firsthand.

Although airlines since 1997 have offered 50% domestic discounts for kids under 2 in their own seats, any child seat mandate will still anger penny-pinching travelers. Airlines also will whine about cost and the potential liability they might incur by putting new gear on their planes. Their lobbying arm, the Air Transport Assn., already backs mandatory restraints in principle but is awaiting a new Society of Automotive Engineers aerospace performance standard for kid seats.

That standard may only confuse things further. Most existing car safety seats won't meet it. So why won't the ATA ask members to supply seats that do? Operations standards director Ronald Welding cites concerns from parents about keeping the seats clean and having enough seats to meet demand.

Back in 1995, the FAA flirted with mandating child restraints but backed off after its data indicated that Americans would rather drive to their destinations than pay for extra airline seats. The FAA concluded that requiring restraints in planes would result in more fatalities, considering the greater risks of auto travel. The Association of Flight Attendants still considers that finding "totally bogus," says Government Affairs Manager Jo Ellen Deutsch. As for airline qualms, Virgin Atlantic already provides restraints for free.

National Transportation Safety Board Commissioner Jim Hall has designated 1999 the "Year of Child Transportation Safety." President Clinton, meanwhile, has announced a federally mandated, three-point attachment system for new cars and child safety seats by 2000. Given that this system won't work with most airplane seats, airlines should get involved in designing multimodal seats. United spokesman Ed Hopkins maintains that "we're not in that [baby seat] business." But Virgin has shown it is. As a spokeswoman says, with 420 people checking in for a flight, "you can't rely on someone bringing a chair that's in good working order." AFA's Deutsch notes how kids in their own seats are better behaved--and chuckles that this is why kid-hating business fliers are some of the proposed mandate's strongest proponents.

If nothing else, consider adults' safety concerns along with those of kids. Getting hit by a flying baby can involve G-forces equivalent to 560 pounds. Unless the FAA acts, some parents will continue bringing this danger on board every time they fly--just to save a buck.

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