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Strapping in your small fry
So you're taking the family on vacation in your jet. You'll belt the two-year-old into his own seat and Mom will hold the newborn in her lap. They'll be as safe as can be, right? Maybe not.
Just ask Jan Brown. She was the chief flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 232, which crashed while attempting an emergency landing at Sioux City Gateway Airport on July 29, 1989. Four children were in adults' laps on that flight and, following official FAA recommendations, Brown told those passengers to put the children on the floor between their legs and cushion them with blankets and pillows. On touchdown, the DC-10 with 296 people aboard caught a wingtip, cartwheeled and broke up in a ball of fire.
Three of the children survived, but the fourth did not. Brown still remembers the mother of the child who died saying at the crash site, "You told me to put my baby on the floor and now he's gone."
More than 20 years later the FAA has yet to mandate the use of child-restraint systems or require small children to ride in their own seats. The agency has advised, however, that "the safest place" for young children is in "an approved child-restraint system or device, not on your lap."
The chief reason to strap the little ones in, of course, is turbulence, which can strike at any time in flight, even in clear air. Every year turbulence injures dozens of passengers, and in numerous cases has killed adults and children alike.
As for standards for the child-restraint systems, which include harnesses, cradles and seats, the FAA has said only that they must be approved for motor-vehicle use; that a rear- or forward-facing system must be "properly secured" in a forward-facing seat or berth; and that the child's weight must not exceed the restraint system maker's guidelines. Further, the FAA recommends-but doesn't require-a rear-facing system for children weighing less than 20 pounds and a forward-facing system for children weighing 20 to 40 pounds. Children weighing more than 40 pounds, the FAA says, should use the standard lap belt that is part of every aircraft seat.
Among those who disagree with that last recommendation is Manfred Groening, CEO of Innovint Aircraft Interior in Hamburg, Germany. His company manufactures the SkyKids child-restraint seat. He notes that aircraft-seat design is based on adult biometrics. As a result, the effect of an impact will be different on a child-even one weighing more than 40 pounds-than on an adult.
Another child-restraint option worth considering is the Cares Child Aviation Restraint System, a harness-type device from Phoenix-based AmSafe Aviation. Intended for children age one and older and weighing 22 to 44 pounds, the AmSafe restraint buckles around the seatback and straps the child in with an integrated shoulder harness and lap belt.
Tips for Parents
To help ensure a child's in-flight safety:
• Understand FAA requirements with regard to child safety and make sure the crew meets them.
• If the child is under age two, confirm in advance that the aircraft operator can supply an approved child-restraint system. Better yet, bring your own.
• Use a rear-facing child seat for children under 20 pounds and a forward-facing system for larger children and ensure that the child's weight doesn't exceed the system's approved limit.
• See that the child is properly restrained for takeoff and landing and during flight.
• Confirm that emergency oxygen masks are onboard for every child. Determine the masks' location and how to access them.