When it comes to car seats and airplanes, I’ve been lucky. I’ve flown close to 100 flight segments with my children and have brought a car seat aboard for easily more than a dozen of those flights. I’ve never once been questioned or challenged by a member of any flight crew.
Every few months, a story makes the news about car seats on airplanes. Usually, a traveling family has been ordered by flight attendants to use a car seat improperly, or not to use it at all. The facts are often sketchy and I must admit that even I discounted some of these stories as the product of journalistic “enthusiasm” or just as the result of simple misunderstanding due to the inexperience of some families who don’t fly that often.
But when the story happens to someone you know and to someone who is a frequent flyer, you begin to seriously consider that the problem is more widespread than you thought. Yesterday, the husband of a college friend of mine was aboard American Airlines Flight 3407 with their 15 month old son. This flight is operated by Envoy Airlines, the American subsidiary regional carrier formerly known as American Eagle. He had purchased a seat for their toddler so that he could bring a car seat aboard and secure him in it for the flight. (As an aside, kudos to them for being so responsible! Although I have occasionally flown with lap children on planes, statistics show that infants and toddlers in car seats are definitely safer in their own seat strapped into a car seat than in arms.) But my friend and her husband had done more than that, making sure to book a window seat as they know that car seats need to be installed by the window so as not to block egress for other passengers. These parents flew frequently (my friend will qualify for American’s Executive Platinum status this year) and knew the rules. I reached out to them directly to get the story.
When my friend’s husband got on the flight, no one said anything to him or checked the seat for the FAA approval sticker, as had occasionally happened to them in the past. He installed the seat in the window seat and buckled his son in. Once the doors were closed and the plane pushed back, the flight attendant came over and told him that his son couldn’t sit in his car seat. My friend’s husband held firm, insisting that his car seat was permitted as he had purchased the extra seat and was using an FAA approved seat. He pointed to the label on the side. The flight attendant said that the label was too far away and that he would have to take his son out of the seat and uninstall it so she could see it. He did just that.
After seeing the label (which says that it’s approved for use on airplanes — see the photo below), the flight attendant stated that car seats aren’t allowed during take off and landing. My friend’s husband continued to challenge her and asked to speak to other crew members or a supervisor. The pilot then came over and told him that the flight attendant was right. He told him that his son could not sit in the seat during take off and landing (statistically the most dangerous part of the flight), but that the crew “didn’t care” where he put his son during the in-flight portion of the trip. My friend’s husband tried to argue and reason with them, finally asking for their names. The crew refused to give their names.
— Amy Harsch (@harshsoda) June 9, 2014
They told him he could either hold his son in his lap for takeoff and landing or they would turn the plane around and throw him off. By this time, the flight was already seriously delayed, having been nearly two hours late in boarding. Having been publicly challenged and embarrassed, not wanting to further inconvenience others, and not seeing any other recourse, he relented and agreed to hold his son for takeoff and landing.
As soon as the flight landed, my friend and her husband started trying to get answers. They tweeted to American directly. They enlisted the help of some big names in social media to get the word out and encourage American to take their complaint seriously — The Baby Guy and The Car Seat Lady.
Here’s The Baby Guy’s post that is making the rounds on Facebook:
My friend has yet to receive a response from American Airlines about the incident, other than an email saying that they were sorry her husband and son were “disappointed” with the experience and they are looking into it. I hope American responds quickly and immediately works to make sure all its flight attendants and pilots adhere to American’s own policies permitting car seat use in exactly this type of scenario.
This is an important battle for traveling parents that airlines need to fix. After sharing an early version of this story on my blog’s Facebook page, several fellow family travel bloggers (Andrea at Passports & Pushchairs and Sarah at Solo Mom Takes Flight) chimed in and reported that they too had personal experience with erroneous flight crew instructions about car seat use. There is really no excuse. Kids fly every day on nearly every plane. I’ve seen hundreds of car seats on planes in my traveling life. Flight attendants and pilots (who fly exponentially more than I ever could) should know the car seat rules. Airlines should do everything in their power to support, rather than to shame and punish, parents who choose to fly with their children in the safest manner possible.