Babies’ Free Plane Rides on Laps May End Soon in Brazil

Brazilian airlines will be happy to let you endure your flight with a squirming child on your lap. They’ll even charge you for the privilege.

While most carriers don’t impose full ticket prices for fliers under age 2 who are held by an adult, the industry wants the right to levy a higher fee on these so-called non-seated travelers. Currently that charge is capped at 10 percent of the fare.

“They can’t bring their own bag, they can’t even eat the food, so why charge at all for babies?” asked Laura Simon, 33, who was flying from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro with her husband and two children on Tam yesterday. “Traveling with kids is difficult,” she said, cradling her 4-month-old in her arms while her 2-year-old jumped on the seat next to her.

The push for lap-child charges shows how Brazilian airlines are starting to challenge consumer-protection rules that have long made Latin America’s biggest nation one of the most passenger-friendly places to fly. Domestic fares have plummeted since being deregulated in 2001 even as the government retains the ban on fees for other services, such as checked bags, that are common in the U.S. and elsewhere.

A proposal to waive the cap on lap fees will be included in the government aviation agency’s forthcoming revision of some regulations. After meeting with the airlines and consumer protection groups, the agency, Anac, is working on a draft “in virtue of tariff liberty,” that will be submitted for public opinion in coming months with final regulation to be approved before the end of 2016.

Push Back

Charging for lap-children is just one area where the airlines are pushing back against government rules in Brazil. Carriers have been lobbying for years to restrict the weight of checked bags. Bag fees won’t be addressed in the revised regulations, according to a Anac, though they are the subject of a separate ongoing review.

“In an open market, we could charge whatever we want,” said Tarcisio Gargioni, vice president for marketing at Avianca Brasil, in a phone interview. “The trend is to charge for services or products being offered, and not to charge those who don’t use them.”

Avianca Brasil, the fourth-largest carrier, is the only airline in Brazil to collect a nominal fee -- 10 reais ($3.68) per trip segment -- for infants.

Tam, a unit of Latam Airlines Group SA, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA and Azul SA, the country’s three biggest airlines, do add a 10 percent surcharge for babies traveling by lap on international flights, according to their websites.

Safety Question

The three carriers wouldn’t comment on their policies and referred questions to Abear, the Brazilian airline association.

“It’s up to the companies to decide their strategy,” said Guilherme Freire, director of institutional relations at Abear in Sao Paulo. “This is about deregulation. Airlines want to be able to offer the best service, and those wanting better service should pay more.”

In the U.S., the aviation industry had a wide-ranging debate over whether to charge for infants about a decade ago. Ultimately, regulators and the airlines decided it was better to not impose fees and encourage parents to fly with young children rather than take road trips where the accident rate is exponentially higher, said Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics, airline management and economics at Daytona Beach’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

If U.S. airlines charged for lap babies, “it would be perceived as a money-hungry concept that jeopardizes children because certain people would be forced to drive,” Bender said.

Winning Situation

Still, the ultimate safety is buying a ticket for a child and putting them in an infant seat. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration discourages parents from flying with their babies in their laps because it’s unsafe, the agency said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Nelyza Warner, mother of a 15-month-old and a 3-year-old, said she depends on airlines to fly home to Goias state from Sao Paulo, which would otherwise be a 12-hour drive.

Charging full price for lap babies would be a “winning situation for the airlines in Brazil because of infrastructure and the distance between cities,” she said by message, referring to pot-holed and congested highways.

Caroline Campanha Vicentin, 28, took her 15-month-old son on his first flight last month.

“You have to do the math and see if it’s worthwhile,” Vicentin said. “All that nuisance of traveling, and then you have to even pay more to hold the baby on your lap.”