Air travel with small children presents parents with many challenges. For some parents, air travel is made more attractive by a common policy among airlines of not charging for children under the age of 2, if the child sits on a parent's lap. This policy may confuse parents into thinking that their children will be safe in such a position. The National Transportation Safety Board has conducted accident investigations which concluded that children survived because they were seated in an infant seat with proper restraints. Despite the recommendations of the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines have maintained an infant seat exception which allows children less than 2 years of age to fly unrestrained or ride on a parent's lap.
Attorney David E. Rapoport, along with retired flight attendant Jan Brown and associate attorney Lindsey A. Epstein have published an article concerning the infant seat exception and the need to provide babies with the protection of a safe seat and proper restraints during air travel.
The FAA and the NTSB both recommend the use of child safety seats on airplanes. The FAA, however, has resisted calls to make the recommendation a requirement. The NTSB maintains that there should be a requirement that every person less than 2 years of age be restrained in a separate seat position with an approved child restraint system during takeoff and landing and during periods of turbulence. The NTSB placed the need for a child safety seat mandate on its Most Wanted List for 15 years, ending in 2005 when it was removed for unspecified reasons. The FAA, which has the authority to make such a regulation, has declined to do so. The FAA is aware of the danger faced by unrestrained infants, but has chosen to focus on improving communication to parents to encourage them to purchase seats for their infants.
The arguments used by the FAA to justify the infant seat exception are generally based on the belief that the additional cost of buying a seat for an infant will cause parents to drive, rather than fly. The child would then be exposed to the greater risk of harm posed by car travel as opposed to air travel. The NTSB did a follow-up study to determine if there was an increase in infant deaths in car accidents during periods when air travel was depressed (following 9/11, for example) and found that there was no such increase.
Airlines often allow children less than 2 years of age to fly for free, if they ride in a parent's lap. This provides a financial incentive for parents to place their children in danger. Some parents may even believe that having a small child ride on their laps is safe, simply because if it weren't safe, it would be outlawed. The policy may be confusing to parents and may cause even cautious parents to make an unsafe choice for their small children. The infant seat exception places children in danger. If there was ever a time for it, that time has passed. Children on planes should be properly restrained during takeoffs, landings and turbulence, just like every other passenger.
Source: Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, "Babies Have a Right to a Safe Seat with Proper Restraints - The Infant Seat Exception Should Be Abandoned," by David E. Rapoport, Jan Brown and Lindsey A. Epstein, Autumn 2012