This summer, if you're flying with infants and small children, will you pay for their plane tickets? Or will they be "lap kids" and fly for free?
When my children were babies, the answer seemed obvious. I flew from New York to Los Angeles with them a few times a year. For the first two years of their lives, they were "lap kids" and I saved money on plane fare. It seemed like the smart, economical way to travel. Almost all my friends felt the same way. And most of the passengers traveling with babies opted to hold them rather than buy them a ticket. What could be safer than a child nestled in a parent's arms?
Years later, I realize I had made a huge mistake. By saving a few hundred dollars, I had unwittingly put my children's lives at risk, according to William McGee, an award-winning travel writer and author of the just-released book, Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent — and How to Reclaim Our Skies (Harper).
"A commercial aircraft traveling at four-fifths of the speed of sound at 35,000 feet exerts g-forces that we can't even comprehend," McGee says. "Think you can hold onto a ten-pound baby during a rapid descent? Try mountain climbing with a pick ax in one hand and your baby in the other—that doesn't even begin to come close to the forces you're battling in the cabin of the airplane."
In 2010, McGee served as the consumer advocate on the U.S. Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee and presided over a subcommittee meeting where he solicited opinions from the industry's leading experts on this topic. All agreed on the dangers of unrestrained babies and toddlers, and some concluded that the best solution would be barring U.S. airlines from allowing "lap kids."
Yet two years later, there is no rule in place to disallow lap children. Airlines don't want these rules because they believe families would opt out of flying to save money and drive instead.
McGee says many parents are naïve about the risks involved in flying with a lap child. They also view airline incidents and accidents as "all or nothing" events.
"Statistics show that in recent years most airline accidents have been survivable, as we've seen with "The Miracle on the Hudson" and in many other cases. There's a reason those over two are required to wear seat belts on airplanes—they can save your life during an accident, an emergency landing, or even severe turbulence."
"Unfortunately, infants often become projectiles in those scenarios. Unrestrained babies have suffered serious injuries and even deaths in situations that were entirely survivable."
So, if you are planning summer airplane travel with children or grandchildren, buy them a ticket, bring a car seat and strap them in, McGee says. The good news is that most car seats are FAA-approved; the bad news is that not every car seat fits into every airline seat, particularly on smaller regional jets. If you have questions, you should contact the airline before you fly. More information is available on the FAA's Child Safety page: www.faa.gov/passengers/fly%5Fchildren or buy McGee's book, where he discusses all aspects of airplane safety.