Feb. 21--A baby propelled from the mother's arms when a United Airlines flight hit severe turbulence over Montana this week has reignited debate over the safety of allowing young children to be held on adults' laps when traveling at 500 m.p.h., 30,000 feet aloft.
The Federal Aviation Administration allows children younger than 2 to fly for free as "lap children," although the FAA website "strongly urges" parents to use approved child-safety seats.
"Your arms aren't capable of holding your children securely, especially during unexpected turbulence," the agency says.
Nevertheless, the FAA does not require a separate seat for young children, saying the mandate would "force some families who can't afford the extra ticket to drive, a statistically more dangerous way to travel."
Airlines permit children younger than 2 to fly for free in the United States, but for transatlantic and international travel they must have "a ticket in their name for 10 percent of the applicable adult fare," according to airline policies at American and Delta. A 10 percent ticket does not entitle infants to their own seats, the policies state.
U.S. airlines used to offer discount fares for very young children to have their own seats, but most no longer do. Southwest has a "fully refundable infant fare" -- the discount is $10 to $15 off its "anytime" or mid-range adult fare, said airline spokesman Dan Landson.
Jeffrey Erlbaum, president of ETA Travel in Conshohocken, said, "Only the international carriers offer what is called an infant seat rate. In defense of the airlines, a baby takes up a seat just as much as an adult.
"I've had some parents insist on a seat for a child under 2, but only for longer flights," Erlbaum said. "From a safety point of view, I know that consumer groups have long said it's safer to have your infant in an infant seat belted to the airline seat, but most parents see it as too costly."
Will the turbulence that occurred as United Flight 1676, en route from Denver to Billings, Mont., started to descend and sent three crew members and two passengers to hospitals -- the infant was not hurt -- prompt the FAA to rethink the policy?
"The FAA continues to encourage the use of child-restraint systems," the agency said in a statement Thursday. Requiring all families traveling with children under 2 to purchase tickets "would significantly raise the net price of travel for those families."
"Such price increases would divert some family travel from the air transportation system to the highway system, and entire families would be subject to far higher fatality rates, which would produce a net increase in overall transportation fatalities," the agency said.
Charles Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, said his Washington-based group has not taken a position.
"Personally, I think the FAA is right," Leocha said. "Given that this has been the law and regulation for so long, and there are so few cases where anybody gets injured, I wouldn't suggest that we change the rule.
"If we look at it as a single incident, yeah, it's too bad. But if you look at the reasoning behind the rule, it makes sense. This is something which is rare enough that we end up with headlines."
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