We all know that car seats are the safest place on airplanes for babies and toddlers. Budget realities sometimes mean that families can’t buy a seat for their little ones every time. But when parents go out of their way to pay the extra money and bring a car seat on board, they need to be encouraged and supported. Unfortunately, they are sometimes shamed and outright prohibited from using the very device that will keep their kids safe.
Two years ago, I published a story about a friend’s experience aboard an American Airlines regional subsidiary where the flight crew prohibited her from using a FAA-approved car seat in the seat she had purchased for her child. Before my friend’s experience, I must admit I was a little skeptical of some of these kinds of stories. I figured they were the result of misunderstanding, hurry, or just parents being unprepared to quote the right rules and make the right appeals.
My friend’s experience opened my eyes to a problem that happens much more often than it should. Several car seat and air travel experts have documented the problem after hearing from many parents traveling, including The Car Seat Lady and John Goglia of Forbes magazine (who published this story just a few days ago).
And earlier this week, I received a disturbing report from a reader who had an eerily similar experience to my friend’s on another American Airlines regional carrier (PSA Airlines) while traveling with her infant. She went out of her way to be extraordinarily prepared for her first flight with her baby, including understanding the rules for car seat use from the airline and the FAA. She and her husband had their infant in the Nuna Pipa (a bucket-style infant seat), marked clearly with the FAA approved label. She had purchased a seat for her infant and was allowed to use it with no incident on the first leg of her two leg journey. On the second leg, she encountered the problem.
She has already filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation so I’ll let her words in that filing tell some of the story:
I boarded the plane with our baby and the car seat. I found our seats (20 C, D, and F) and placed the car seat in 20F [editor’s note: that’s the window, in accordance with the rule that a car seat not block egress for passengers], the seat we purchased for our son. I was seat belting the car seat in when the flight attendant approached me and asked about the car seat. I responded that he was ticketed and the car seat was FAA approved. He said the car seat was not allowed on the aircraft and offered to take it. I then reiterated it was approved and offered to show him the FAA language on the bottom of the car seat. I picked up my son and went to turn the seat over when he grabbed the car seat out of my hands . . . . He looked at the language and said it wasn’t allowed on “this” aircraft but that he would have to check with the captain. I again stated I had researched the specific plane, CRJ-900, and the seats were 17″ wide and his seat was only 16.5″ wide and it clearly fit fine. He said several times only a “tall car seat” or a “real car seat” was allowed on the plane. My attempts to explain this was an infant car seat and I believed he was referring to a convertible car seat fell on deaf ears. He said he had to check with the captain and I agreed, knowing fully it was FAA compliant . . . . He walked away with my car seat in the middle of my sentence despite my pleas to let me hold onto our seat. He returned with only a black book and said the car seat wasn’t allowed based on a rule in “this book but you can’t see it.” I again and again reiterated the FAA rules, that we had purchased a seat for him, and that this was allowed by American Airlines. The flight attendant was rude, disrespectful and condescending saying over and over it wasn’t allowed on “this” aircraft and only a “tall car seat” or a “real car seat” was allowed.
Another flight crew member . . . joined the discussion and said it wasn’t allowed. I again repeated it was in compliance of all FAA rules and asked to see my car seat. The 2nd crew member said we could not because it was already under the plane. This was highly upsetting to me because we specifically did not consent to putting our car seat under the plane and most definitely would not have agreed to putting under the plane without a cover or some sort of protection. We purchased a $20 bag to protect our $7 stroller from damage at gate check. Never would we consent to checking a $300 car seat unprotected!!!! Further, every parent knows that maintaining the integrity of a car seat is paramount for your child’s safety. Once the car seat was taken from us, we are no longer able to verify the integrity of the seat and any bumps, minor accidents, or jostling applied to the car seat is cause to purchase a new seat according to car seat manufacturers. Our car seat was eventually returned to us, but it had new scratches and dings that were not there prior to the flight crews action. As a result of the crews gate checking our car seat without our permission, we can no longer verify this seat is functionally sound and have been forced to purchase a new car seat according to manufacturer guidance.
The complaint continues, detailing repeated misinformation and mistreatment of this family. One flight attendant tried to tell the parents that the baby was safer in their arms than in the car seat – an assertion that defies both common sense and the laws of physics. Eventually, another flight crew member told the family “We are leaving in 30 seconds, are you staying or leaving?” The family asked if the next flight would be on the same aircraft and were told “yes, so you can’t use the seat on that plane either,” which didn’t leave them many options. The family ultimately relented and flew on the flight without their car seat with their infant in arms.
A lot more transpired and is detailed in the DOT complaint, but in the interest of brevity, here are a few more relevant facts:
- Passengers came forward to the family and offered to act as witnesses, stating their belief that the flight crew had made a mistake.
- The flight crew may very well have realized its error in flight after reviewing an online story of a similar situation on AA (very possibly my friend’s well-publicized complaint against AA).
- After the family landed, the family reported the incident to ground crew who were sympathetic. A manager at the arriving airport filed a complaint with PSA directly on their behalf.
- The family complained to AA directly as well and were offered compensation – a partial refund of the infant ticket and a voucher for future travel.
I think the airline knows this flight crew screwed up big in this situation. Personally, I think American Airlines should be offering more under the circumstances. Vouchers are pretty useless if families don’t travel often or simply don’t want to travel this airline again after this bad experience. And the family needs a new car seat at AA’s expense since they can no longer count on its integrity after it was taken from them without their consent.
But I definitely don’t get the impression that this family is after compensation. They want this to stop happening, as do I. It’s not excusable in this day and age of car seat hyper-vigilance for these stories to arise again and again. Flight crews are trained in proper seat belt use for adults and older children and need to fully understand car seat restraint rules too. They really aren’t hard: FAA-sticker, in the proper place in the plane (not in or in front of/behind exit row, not blocking aisle), and can fit in the seat. Done.
I hope the relevant agencies take appropriate action against AA for this incident and that this flight crew – and any others that might make the same mistake due to lack of training – are trained properly. If you plan to fly with young children in car seats, consider printing or bookmarking the FAA circular governing your rights to use car seats as well as the airline’s own rules on flying with children and restraint usage. Stand your ground (politely, of course) if you encounter resistance or erroneous instructions. And – if it happens to you in spite of all of this – keep filing those complaints until the FAA takes further action.
Friday 17th of May 2019
We purchased two Cares Harness systems after carefully researching FAA approved systems. It is the only "harness" system that is FAA approved. We've flown with our 3, now 4 year old twins first class between Orange County and Newark probably times in the last two years. (we sit in the first class third row so the harness when put over the seat does not impede anyone's tray table behind us) . We have used the system on every trip with no incident, until a few months ago when a flight attendant told us we could not use them. I told her it was FAA approved (shows it right on the harness) and it is even noted on United's website! She said they (the flight attendants) had already discussed it (did not discuss with us) and that if we wanted to get off the plane we could. She was very rude. Basically it was get off the plane or fly with your children at risk. United particularly has angry rude (the old ones mostly) flight attendants. Why they make it their mission to harass parents complying with their policies I do not know. It is amazing how uneducated and uninformed they are about their own policies. I forgot about it until I ready this note and am going to reach out to their exec office.
Saturday 9th of February 2019
Just don't fly US airlines, problems solved.
Saturday 9th of February 2019
The trick is not to fly any US airlines, problems solved.
Tuesday 24th of October 2017
I just had something similar happen to me. So frustrating, disheartening, and SCARY.
Tuesday 9th of May 2017
Hi - do you have any recommendations for avoiding this situation? We are about to fly on United Airlines (well, United Express) with 6 month old twins. We have purchased seats for them (window seats, plane is an ERJ-175 regional jet operated by Mesa Airlines. It seems like a lot of these stories have happened on carriers like this one - regional airlines doing business under the names of the majors, and I'm suddenly really nervous about it. I also use the Nuna Pipa for the twins and I will probably come all kinds of unglued if they take the seats from me!