An odd, and sometimes tragic, fact of modern air travel is that on takeoffs and landings, everything must be stowed or strapped down - except for infants.
That loophole is again in the spotlight since the investigation into last summer’s crash of a USAir DC9 in Charlotte, N.C. Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board last week said that the absence of a safety seat contributed to the death of a 9-month-old girl who catapulted from her mother’s arms. The crash also killed 36 adults.
That finding caused the NTSB to renew its recommendation that “all infants and small children be restrained in a manner appropriate to their size.” That recommendation, which would effectively require infants to have tickets and sit in safety seats, failed when it was recommended five years ago because of concerns over the expense to parents.
This time, however, the airline industry and its major unions indicate that carriers are likely to make infants’ tickets more affordable.
In Congress, meanwhile, Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot has introduced legislation to require the use of safety seats on all commercial airlines. If regulators fail to act this time, said the Iowa Republican, Congress is likely to intervene.
“For years now we have recognized the need to require additional precautions for children traveling in automobiles, yet we have failed to translate that valuable lesson to airline travel,” said Lightfoot.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which writes and enforces aviation safety standards, is completing a congressionally required study of safety seats on planes, a spokeswoman said. It has 90 days to respond to the NTSB recommendation.
“This is one issue that is very much on the front burner,” said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere. “There’s a lot of discussion going on, but we’re being pulled in different directions.”
Children under age 2 do not need a ticket to travel by air, and FAA rules allow them to sit in the lap of an adult. Despite numerous calls over the years to change the policy, the FAA has not done so, arguing that the added expense of buying a seat for a child would cause more families to drive - a statistically more dangerous way of traveling.
The airline industry and its unions, however, insist the standards are needed, and they challenge the theory that people would opt to travel by car.
Competition among airlines, they say, would lead to discounted prices for children that would make it possible for parents to afford a separate seat. “We think the market would deal with (ticket prices) very effectively,” said Thomas Neale, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for commercial airlines. “This is a safety issue, and this is the way it should be approached.”
Neale and the NTSB argue that airlines would rather sell a seat at a discount than leave it empty. “Once a plane takes off with an empty seat, that revenue is lost forever,” he said.
Neale said the organization would support the regulations so long as the government approves a design for child safety seats that fit properly in airline seats and does not require airlines to offer special fares.
Auto accidents kill or injure 79,000 children under age 4 each year, according to government statistics. Aviation officials believe three children under the age of 2 have died in airplanes in the last decade, although no precise records exist.
Nor are there precise records for the number of infants flying, because children under age 2 do not have tickets and therefore are not always counted. The Air Transport Association estimates about 5,000 of these children fly each day, while the FAA puts the total at 10,000.
But the NTSB says one death is too many, particularly if it could have been prevented.
The FAA, however, argues that the decision is more difficult because statistically speaking, so few children - and adults as well - are harmed flying commercial airlines.
That will not comfort the family of Danasia London, the 9-month-old killed on Flight 1016 from Columbia, S.C., to Charlotte. Danasia and her mother were in seat 21C as a violent wind shear drove the plane into the ground July 2. Although her mother cradled Danasia tightly in her arms, no adult is strong enough to overcome the power of a jet slamming into the ground at nearly 160 mph. Danasia died of massive head “trauma.” Her body was found in row 17, four rows ahead of her mother, who was wearing a seat belt and survived.
Numerous studies have shown that people, even large adults, are simply not strong enough to hold a child during a crash or even turbulence.
Holding a child in your arms is “tantamount to no restraint at all,” Jeff Marcus, a researcher at the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute, testified last year during a public hearing in Charlotte.
“There is no way any human being could hold a child during a crash,” said Marcus. “Schwarzenegger couldn’t do it.”