The Weak Case for Requiring Infant Seats on Airplanes

Children less than 2 years old on airplanes are the only passengers not required to wear seat belts or other restraints, a risky situation that the outgoing leader of the National Transportation Safety Board describes as “one of my great disappointments.”

“We secure laptops and coffee pots, but we do not secure our most precious asset, our children,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said on Monday in a farewell speech at the National Press Club. Her last day as chairman on Friday ends a decade of leadership at the agency, which investigates aircraft, motor, rail, and other transportation accidents. Hersman will become president of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit agency seeking to reduce injuries at home and in workplaces.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that all children be secured in a child safety seat or other approved device, although it has not mandated enforcement of that policy. Regulators say that requiring restraints for children 24 months and younger—who now fly free on domestic flights in the U.S.—would cause many families to drive to their destinations because of the added costs of buying a seat. That, in turn, would lead to the deaths of many more children, given that driving is far more dangerous than air travel. In a 2004 report, however, the NTSB disputed this “diversion” argument, saying that age 2 was an arbitrary cutoff that did not correspond to any flight-safety research. “Although ludicrous, exempting children under 2 is not functionally different from exempting passengers over 80 from a restraint requirement,” NTSB engineers noted at the time.

For several years the NTSB has put airplane child restraints on its 10 Most Wanted List, an annual compilation of rule changes the agency is seeking to promote greater transport safety. The Association of Flight Attendants has also lobbied for the FAA to mandate seat restraints for children less than 2, dating to the 1989 crash of a United DC-10, which suffered an engine explosion and made an emergency landing in South Dakota, killing 111 people, including a 22-month-old boy who was not secured in a seat. Another 185 passengers survived. Hersman referred to that accident in her speech, noting that the speed of the airplane on impact, 240 mph, meant that “those mothers couldn’t hold onto their babies” during the crash. The chief flight attendant on Flight 232, Jan Lohr, has campaigned for child restraints since the crash.

Decades of federal data make it clear, however, that a rule change would have difficulty passing muster on a cost-benefit analysis. “No preventable infant deaths” have occurred on U.S. flights in 17 years, according to the FAA, and restraint systems could have saved three babies in the past 32 years.

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