Best Practice for Children on Airplanes Still Seems Up in the Air!

However, an industry group takes a first step toward standardization of child safety recommendations aboard aircraft

This article originated in the June/July 2015 issue of Safe Ride News.

Airplane Toy

During a busy summer of travel, I wrote several articles for this issue of SRN while waiting in airports and flying on airplanes.  Like most CPSTs, I travel with an awareness of the families around me and always perk up when I see a CR. Alas, contrary to safety recommendations, I find that most CRs that make it as far as the gate are gate-checked rather than used on board.  It’s understandable that most parents aren’t fully aware of best practice on airplanes; safety messages can be unclear and confusing in a system that allows children under age 2 to ride on a caregiver’s lap.  (And, let’s face it, those safety messages need to be very compelling to overcome parents’ understandable desire to save money by not buying a plane ticket for these infants.)

So my review of the recent recommendations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was especially timely, as it occurred while on a plane en route to Europe.  While domestic travel is complicated enough for families, even those who understand and follow current child passenger safety recommendations, travel abroad poses additional challenges.  In many cases, foreign carriers do not allow the use of CRs approved by another country, and families with the best intentions are often instructed instead to hold a baby on a lap or put the child in a seat with only a lap belt for restraint.  Years ago, I experienced this myself while traveling from France with my preschooler.  It was only through sheer stubbornness on my part, coupled with the good fortune that our carrier was British Airways (so I thankfully faced no language barrier) that the crew begrudgingly allowed my daughter to ride in her age-appropriate CR.

The IATA is an airline industry organization, established in 1945, that focuses on aircraft cabin safety issues, including standards, procedures, and training that promote passenger safety.  Recognizing that the current lack of harmonized international regulations regarding CRs interferes with child safety, the organization’s new document, titled “Guidance on the Safety of Infants and Children on Board,” takes an initial step toward standardizing policies and practices. Its stated purpose is “further encouraging and promoting the use of approved CRs on board aircraft by creating heightened awareness on this important topic with both industry at large and members of the traveling public.”

In particular, the organization seeks to create a solution for family travel that enables and promotes the safe use of CRs on board aircraft globally. The ambitious goal is a set of internationally recognized standards on the use of child restraints so that families can count on consistency in the rules as they travel between countries.  The document specifies that best practice for children is to ride in a crash-tested CR that meets the child’s height and weight limitations whenever one is provided by the caregiver.  When not provided, it states children under age 2 should be held on a caregiver lap, and children over age 2 should ride buckled up in their own seat.  Since some countries require lap-held babies to additionally be restrained by a supplemental loop belt device, the document further specifies that cabin crew should provide the necessary training for caregivers when these are used.  The document also recognizes the suitability of approved aviation-specific restraints for children.  The two currently approved devices it notes are the CARES safety harness and an infant cradle system approved by some countries (outside the U.S.) for protection of newborns during turbulence.

Since the document acknowledges that some children might continue to ride unrestrained, many readers may believe these recommendations don’t go far enough. However, one must understand the status quo being addressed.  Currently, carriers that serve many parts of the world have not given any attention whatsoever to the subject of CRs aboard aircraft. Therefore, much of the document seeks to standardize the acknowledgement among companies from all countries that CRs are the first line for best practice aboard aircraft.  No pun intended, but these are the baby steps that must be taken toward an ultimate solution.   The document focuses less on details of proper use and more upon the need for proper training of crews, crew guidance for caregivers on board, and the presence of informational cards and labels to assist passengers. It cites the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration website as a model in terms of providing guidance and support to those traveling with small children.

While the IATA’s recommendations document is only an initial step, the organization states that it is committed to working with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to achieve its goal of turning these recommendations into standards.  Based on the tone of the document, it seems likely that the result will be very helpful in creating uniformity in the recognition of the importance of using CRs aboard aircraft and will help especially in promoting the training of crew and communication with the public.  However, at this time the organization does not aim to establish a requirement that families actually use CRs while traveling on aircraft.  Therefore, the need to develop public safety messages to encourage CR use when children fly will continue.

Of course, the urgency of these safety messages would have to increase substantially to overcome the significant barriers of cost and inconvenience for many families.  Based on the number of children I see riding unrestrained or in a caregiver’s arms, a very clear safety campaign would be needed to improve current attitudes and behavior.

Denise Donaldson—Denise Donaldson