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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 2: On the Plane)

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Trips With Tykes complete guide to car seats on airplanes. The goal of this guide is to answer every question you’ve ever had (and probably a few you’ve never had) about traveling on planes with kids and car seats. Part 2 covers car seat use while on the plane and in the air. And don’t miss the other parts of the guide here:

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Car Seats on Planes - Infant Seat

Part 2: Car Seats On the Plane

6. Should I use a car seat on planes for my child?

This is probably the most controversial air travel and parenting question of all. First, let’s cover what is required. The bottom line is that federal aviation rules do not require that a child of any age use a car seat at all. In addition, children who have not yet reached their second birthdays may travel as lap children. Whether to use a car seat on board (and whether babies and toddlers even have a seat at all) is entirely up to you and your discretion as a parent.

Whether more should be required is the subject of much debate. All the experts (and I don’t profess to be one) agree that the safest place for a baby or young child on a plane is restrained in their own seat in an approved child restraint system. Many airlines have language on their websites encouraging parents to use car seats for kids. While a car seat probably isn’t going to do anything to save your child in the case of a major airplane crash, it can protect against more minor incidents like serious turbulence or a hard landing. I try to buy a seat for my not-yet-two year old toddler whenever possible (as much because of comfort as safety), but have also traveled with him as a lap child in a few circumstances.

The bottom line?: This is your call. The safest option is with a car seat, but we all make calculated risks on a daily basis as parents.

7. If I want to use a car seat, can I bring my car seat on board the plane?

Yes (with a few exceptions). If you have a seat booked for your child and a car seat that is approved for use in aircraft by the FAA, then you can bring and use a car seat on board for your child.

Almost all seats from major manufacturers like Graco, Britax, Chicco, and others are FAA-approved, but bring your manual or look for the sticker on the side of your seat just in case a crew member gives you a hard time (it happened to a friend of mine). Car seats will say “This Restraint is Certified for Use in Motor Vehicles and Aircraft.” Plenty of seats from other countries are allowed as well if they have a label showing approval of a foreign government or a label showing manufacture under the standards of the United Nations.

If you have a baby or toddler traveling as a lap child, the only way you can bring a car seat on board is if you know you will have access to an open seat. Check with the gate agent to make arrangements beforehand if a flight is not full.

Just in case you need official confirmation, here are the rules on car seat use on planes from the FAA (I’d encourage parents to print this circular to have in a pinch!):

No certificate holder may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS when the parent/guardian purchases a ticket for the child. (Certificate holders are encouraged to allow the use of empty seats to accommodate CRS; however, they are not required to allow unticketed children to occupy empty passenger seats, even if the child uses a CRS.)

8. Will my car seat fit in the airplane seats?

Probably, with the right preparation. Airplane seats are getting narrower and narrower and car seats are getting bigger and bigger. This means that some of the bulkiest car seats won’t fit in the narrowest airplane seats. Bulkhead seats are especially problematic as the tray tables stored in the armrests make the seats slightly narrower (the armrests in bulkhead seats also won’t raise up to give you extra space).

Cosco Scenera Next

Cosco Scenera NEXT is an inexpensive and lightweight car seat for travel.

Consider traveling with a more compact car seat models.  I’ve never had any issues with the Cosco Scenera NEXT which is highly-rated, inexpensive, light, and usable rear and forward facing. Measure your car seat; as long as it is under 16 inches wide, it should fit.

Need other ideas? Check out my guide to the best car seats and boosters for air travel for seats that are tried and true for my family on planes!

9. What if my car seat doesn’t fit?

FAA rules require that if an approved car seat doesn’t fit, the airline has the “responsibility to accommodate the CRS in another seat in the same class of service.” This means the airline may move you around to find a place where the car seat will fit. But don’t create hassles for yourself needlessly. Before you travel with your monstrosity of a car seat, consider getting a more compact (and cheaper) one for air travel.

10. Can I use my car seat rear facing?

Yes. If your FAA-approved car seat is approved for rear-facing in a car and your child is within the weight/height limits of the seat to rear face, you can also rear face on the plane.

Sometimes flight attendants will ask you turn your car seat around because rear-facing seats often block the recline of the person in front of you. This is incorrect. Be polite, but stand firm, particularly in the case of infant seats that are not approved for forward-facing use at all. Offer to buy a drink for the inconvenienced person in front of you or to have another traveler in your party sit in that seat (if that is possible given your traveling party companions).

11. Are there seats on the plane in which car seats are not allowed?

Yes. Car seats are obviously not allowed in exit rows (nor are any kids under age 15). But car seats are also not allowed in any seats where they would block the exit paths of others in the row. In a single aisle plane with a 3-3 configuration, for example, this means that car seats are for the most part allowed only in the window seats. The car seat could also go in a middle seat if the window seat in the same row was empty, as the key question is whether an exit path is blocked for other passengers. On double aisle planes, like a 2-4-2 configuration, car seats can be (for all intents and purposes) installed in either of the two window seats in the side sections or in the two center seats of the middle section.

12. Can I use car seats in business or first class?

It depends. Car seats may not always work in premium cabins. In domestic first class cabins (the ones with the slightly wider seats with more legroom that aren’t in fancy pods and don’t lie flat), car seats should nearly always work. But on many international premium cabins, the seats are so specialized that a car seat can’t be installed properly. Call your airline to see if you can get advice in advance and also check out the aircraft and seat types used on your flight using Seatguru.com.

13. Can I use a booster seat on the plane?

bubblebumNo. Booster seats are not approved for use in planes by the FAA. The good news is that most of the low backed ones are small enough to stow in the overhead bin so you don’t need to check them. Consider packing a BubbleBum inflatable booster for your children who are 4 years and 40+ pounds to take on your travels for use at your destination. It is one of my favorite products for travel with older kids.

The one exception to this no-booster rule is for combination car seats that can either be used with an included 5 point harness or with a seatbelt in booster mode. As long as you are using the seat in 5 point harness mode, it should be approved.

14. Are there any alternatives to a car seat for use on the plane?

CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

CARES harness in action – happy & safe toddler in-flight.

Yes! We regularly use the CARES harness, which is a simple set of straps that connect to the airplane seat belt, turning it into a 5 point harness. CARES is the only device other than a car seat that is FAA approved for use on taxi, takeoff and landing in addition to in-flight. We’ve used it many times with our now 20 month old son and it is so much more compact that lugging a huge car seat through the airport. On the few occasions we’ve traveled with my son as a lap child, we’ve been able to use it if there is an empty seat on the plane for him too. I highly, highly recommend the CARES harness once your kids have reached the 22 pound weight minimum. It solves so many of the car seat hassles.

15. If I don’t use my car seat on board, is there any where to stow it?

No. The vast majority of car seats are too big to fit in airplane overhead bins. There is also not another storage space big enough on board to stow them. You either need to be prepared to use your car seat on board the entire time or check it ahead of time.

One of the very few exceptions to this rule is the new WAYB Pico car seat for kids ages 2-5 that folds small enough to fit in an overhead bin. Check out my full WAYB Pico review to see if this seat is right for you.

16. What if a crew member tells me I cannot use a car seat or that I must use it in a certain way that I know to be wrong?

It happens. In fact, it happened to a friend of mine who was told she could not use her son’s FAA-approved car seat during takeoff and landing. Her husband was made to hold their child in his lap for the two most dangerous parts of the flight or he would not be permitted to fly (even though they had purchased a seat for the baby). Crew members are fallible human beings who can be mistaken or forget their training.

If it happens to you, be prepared by having the relevant FAA rules and airline’s rules printed or bookmarked on your phone. Have documentation that your car seat is FAA-approved (either the sticker on the side of your car seat or the manual itself). Be polite but firm if it is a matter of safety at stake. Ask the crew member to check his or her manual or to check with another flight attendant for clarification. Whatever you do, keep cool or you can find yourself at risk of being thrown off a plane for disobeying crew instructions. Usually all of this will be enough for a successful resolution, but if not, be sure to complain to your airline (and perhaps a consumer advocate or journalist) after the fact.

Here’s a link to the relevant car seat rules for the major US airlines so you can be prepared for your next flight: (and be sure to check out my complete guide to flying Southwest Airlines with kids!)


Need more information on car seats and planes? Check out the all three parts of the complete guide to flying with car seats:

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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 1: At the Airport)
Car Seats on Planes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 3: At your destination)
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Car Seats on Airplanes: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Part 3: At Your Destination)

Valerie

Friday 17th of May 2019

Since several people were asking about the CARES harness, we have one of these for my (almost) 4yr old son. He’s been using it for about 2 years. He sleeps in it for a while (he also can fall asleep in his more or less upright forward facing carseat during car rides), but in an international flight, he will usually end up lying across us after several hours. We also purchased carseat shoulder pad covers to make it softer to lay his head and these go over the buckle - not all brands fit - the buckle is thicker than a normal strap. We’ve only once (in probably almost a dozen flights) had a problem with a flight attendant not wanting us to use it at first - but when I pushed back she asked around and it turned out another flight attendant had one for her kid. Overall I highly recommend it and (especially after our most recent experience) cant wait till my daughter is big enough for one so we don’t have to deal with a carseat in the plane.

Valerie

Friday 17th of May 2019

I just had a horrible experience with Frontier with the carseat. We purchased a ticket for my daughter and brought a 3in1 carseat with the intention of using it as a rear-face (she is just over a year, almost 20lbs). It fit on the way there, but on the way back the (non-moving) seats where we were assigned to were either more reclined or closer together than the previous flight. The flight attendant called the gate agent to see if we could switch seats; the gate agent was horrible and insisted we just check the carseat. Finally the flight attendant recommended we forward face the seat; in the meantime the gate agent was suggesting she’d throw us off the flight if we wouldn’t “cooperate”. Without many other options I ended up agreeing to forward face her, but had to change the car seat straps, etc to make it work; as I’m trying to install the forward facing seat the gate agent is now telling me she needs to close the door and if I don’t finish installing it (that’s what I’m trying to do!) she’s going to take me off the flight. It was horrible! I’ve since spoken with multiple people at Frontier and they’ve apologized, said this was against their policies, etc; but it still happened and isn’t an experience anyone should go though. Hindsight I probably should have printed out a copy of the FAA regs (they do state that the airline has to assign you another seat if the carseat doesn’t fit; and that they are required to allow you to use an FAA approved car seat, per manufacturer recommendation, as long as you have purchased a seat).

Jenni Kumimoto

Saturday 26th of January 2019

Thanks for the great info! I have a question about the CARES harness, does it have a crotch strap also? In worried about my squirmy 2 year old wiggling his way under the lap belt. Do you have any advice for this?

Thanks!

Kelly

Saturday 29th of December 2018

This is very helpful, thanks! I'm about to fly with my two year old boy who does not hold still very well! In your experience, are children more successful at staying in their seat (and possibly sleeping) if they are in the car seat? Will the tray on the back of the seat still come down, or will the car seat get in the way? Do you think it's worth the hassle, solely for the success of the flight? (We have alternate arrangements for the car rides). TIA!

Generoso

Monday 21st of May 2018

Has anyone been told that an airline's regulations do not allow a car seat to be installed goes across the top of the car seat? I just flew on a cathay pacific flight and was show a regulation in their employee manual that says this. They told me that i should have bought the car seat base onto the plane.

L

Wednesday 18th of July 2018

Unfortunately these rules apply only to US based carriers. Cathay Pacific is actually one of the hardest to deal with in terms of car seat use on board!