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We would never consider putting an infant or toddler into a car without a carseat, but we don't hesitate to do exactly this when getting onto a large airplane.

If you aren't aware of the concept of a lap child, this is a child typically under 2 years of age who can board an airplane without an assigned seat and must be held by the parents for the duration of the flight (including takeoff and landing). The only safety consideration is that the lap child must be seated in a row with adequate O2 masks in case of depressurization (some rows have more masks than seats).

I have always considered this to be an unsafe practice, but have never had data to back that up. It seems to me that holding on to a 20 lb child when subject to strong turbulence or unexpected maneuvering would be difficult. While not common, adults are occasionally severely injured in these events but I've never noted a lap child being hurt.

Does anyone know of instances where a lap child was injured during a flight? I'm not interested in instances where everyone is hurt but rather instances that having been secured in a car seat would reasonably have prevented the injury.

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strong turbulence isn't bad if you have a good grip, a crash is where it's at –  ratchet freak Mar 6 at 21:26
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@ratchetfreak Moderate turbulence, maybe. Severe turbulence (the kind that actually injures cabin crew) on the other hand may turn your child into a projectile... –  voretaq7 Mar 6 at 23:41
    
Here's the database search page for the NTSB, "lap child" turned up a few results. I'll look through them later, but I thought I'd link the site just in case you find it useful: ntsb.gov/aviationquery –  Jay Carr Mar 7 at 13:58
    
Actually some of do hesitate doing this. To the extent when flying with my 2yr old child we paid full rate for his own seat on the aircraft and wrote in advance to check that we could use the car seat on his seat. When we boarded the aircraft the air crew were adamant that he must go on an adults lap for the take off and landing phase but when the seatbelt sign was out he could sit in his car seat!!! I nearly got thrown off the aircraft for causing trouble trying to explain that he was safer in the car seat than on a lap belt. –  Adrian Mar 7 at 15:51
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I recall seeing a TV program once (I think it was Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death -- I'll have to watch it later) that suggested requiring children to have their own seats was "statistical homicide". The idea is that the additional expense would cause more parents to drive, which is more dangerous than flying. –  Fred Larson Mar 7 at 17:42

3 Answers 3

Your instincts are correct, or at least the NTSB agrees with you - they don't like the idea of "Lap Children" on aircraft, and they've come out and said as much in this Safety Alert.

They reiterated that position again in a 2010 letter to the FAA which includes a number of incidents from NTSB investiations, including:

… on July 19, 1989, United Airlines flight 232 crashed during an attempted emergency landing at Sioux City, Iowa, after the fragmentation and separation of an engine fan disk. Of the 296 airplane occupants, 111 were killed, 47 received serious injuries, 125 received minor injuries, and 13 were not injured. Four children, ages 11 to 26 months,17 were aboard the airplane and were being held by adults. A 23-month-old child was killed, and the other three children received minor injuries. The parents of the four lap-held children were instructed to place their children on the cabin floor and hold them in that position while the adults assumed the protective brace position. After the accident, three of the parents reported that they were unable to hold onto their children during the accident sequence.

and

… USAir flight 1016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight crew decided to continue an approach into severe convective activity and was executing a missed approach when the airplane collided with trees and a private residence near the airport. Of the 57 airplane occupants, 37 were killed, 16 received serious injuries, and 4 received minor injuries. Among those occupants who were killed was a 9-month-old child who was held by her mother on her lap. The child’s mother survived the accident but was unable to hold onto her child during the impact sequence, and the child struck several seats. The NTSB believed that the child might not have sustained fatal injuries if she had been properly restrained in a child restraint system.

Granted both of these were pretty severe accidents, but the NTSB investigators found that the lack of restraints was potentially a major contributing factor to the injuries of children on these flights.


In that same letter the NTSB also notes that unrestrained children are not just a hazard to themselves in a crash:

Passengers are required to securely stow all carry-on baggage during takeoff and landing because of the potential risk of injury to other passengers in the event of an unexpected hazardous encounter. However, passengers are permitted to hold a child of equal size and weight in their lap. When children under 2 years of age are not required to be restrained for their own safety, the safety of their fellow passengers also becomes an issue.


See here for more NTSB pronouncements on the subject of child safety in transportation.
They even have some excellent videos and simulations showing restrained versus unrestrained children.

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+1 for citing UA 232. –  shortstheory Mar 7 at 2:38
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Very recently, UA1676 made the news when a baby flew out of a mother's arms after encountering turbulence, and landed (safely) a few rows away. –  Yos233 Mar 7 at 2:45
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No one ever listens to Zathras. "Quite mad," they say. It is good that Zathras does not mind. He's even grown to like it. Oh, yes. -- The NTSB is Zathras in this little Babylon 5 allegory… –  voretaq7 Mar 7 at 3:02

Although the FAA still allows lap children, the NTSB does not recommend it. According to the NTSB Child and Youth Transportation Safety webpage (emphasis my own):

The NTSB Child and Youth Transportation Safety Initiative will promote child occupant safety in all modes of transportation with a focus on educating parents and caregivers about ways to keep children safe when traveling. The NTSB will also continue to push for adoption of its recommendations concerning child occupant safety, such as:

Requiring separate seats and restraints for all airplane occupants, and requiring children younger than 2 to be restrained by an appropriate child restraint system during air travel

They also issued a safety alert on the subject, in which they advise parents to "Purchase a ticket for all children younger than 2 years and restrain them in a child restraint system certified for use on aircraft", "Ensure that infants and small children are restrained in a child restraint appropriate to their size.", and to "Ensure that all children are properly restrained during takeoff, landing, and turbulent conditions or when the seat belt sign is illuminated".

On the flip side, seat prices are expensive, and many parents may simply choose not to fly if they are forced to buy a separate seat for their infant, so airlines and the FAA do have some pressure to continue to permit the practice.

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Cranfield University in the UK has long been involved in research on child restraint systems in aircraft. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2000-01/CU-Cpfg-3001100.php

Roger Hardy, Director of the Cranfield Impact Centre believes, "It is time to get children off laps. End of story." A topic discussed at a recent seminar in Washington USA, which focused on 'Child Restraint Use in Aircraft' gave experts the chance to put across their views on this crucial issue.

and list a number of relevant publications

http://www.cranfieldimpactcentre.com/publications-archive

  • Hardy, R.N., “The Restraint of Children in Aircraft”, Proceedings of National Transportation Safety Board Child Restraint in Aircraft meeting, Washington D.C. December 1999.
  • Hardy, R.N., “Dual Child Occupancy of an Aircraft Seat”, CAA Paper 93013, July 1993.
  • Hardy, R.N., “The Restraint of Infants and Young Children in Aircraft”, CAA Paper 92020, December 1992.
  • Hardy, R.N., “Restraint of Infants and Young Children”, 8th Annual International Aircraft Cabin Safety Symposium, Costa Mesa, California, February 1991.
  • Hardy, R.N., “Infant and Child Safety Research”, European Cabin Safety Conference, Gatwick Airport, London, September 1990.
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