Monday, October 8, 2012

Airplane Travel With Lap Babies - Who Cares?

I know that parents care deeply for their children.  But air travel can be expensive, and when calculating costs of purchasing a seat for their babies versus the risks of holding their babies in their laps, many many many parents do choose to take the chance that their flight will be an uneventful flight.  After all, it's LEGAL, isn't it?

Yes, it's legal, but it's not recommended.  Not by the airlines themselves.  Not even by the airlines' regulatory agency.

There are two agencies involved in this issue.  One is the FAA, the Federal Aviation Authority.  The other is the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.

So, in answer to the title of this post, who cares about lap babies? The NTSB does, and they don't want the practice to be permitted. The FAA? Well, they only care when you care.

Let's compare the priorities of the two agencies: 
  • The FAA regulates air transportation.  That includes flight routes, air traffic control, licensing pilots, setting equipment inspection standards and quality controls.  (The FAA also regulates the growing field of commercial space travel -- when Richard Branson is developing Virgin Atlantic space travel, or SpaceX launches a rocket, they have to work with the FAA.)   Sounds to me like they have a very "top down" mission, i.e., air transportation from the perspective of geography, equipment, pilots, mechanics.
  • The NTSB's, on the other hand, investigates crashes -- auto, train, bus, air.  Their priorities are gathering data on damage and injuries, analyzing it, and applying that knowledge to the protection and safety of travelers.  Their mission seems more "from the ground up" than "from the top down." Passengers figure very prominently.
In short:  FAA, macro: systems, equipment, regulations, focused on the whole, keeping it functioning as a system.  NTSB, micro: looking out for the individual, keeping each individual safe.

The FAA recommends that babies under 2 years old have their own seats, but they don't REQUIRE it.  This fine distinction between recommending and requiring is the thin sliver of hope parents cling to when choosing to fly with lap babies.
  • (The FAA does have definite requirements about the EQUIPMENT involved when babies travel in airplanes, as any parent who's every had to fight for their right to install their child's car seat in one of their planes. Perhaps it is the car seat's potential to interfere with equipment and procedures that concerns them more.  Another possible example of "the whole" versus "the individual.")
The NTSB strongly recommends that parents purchase individual seats for their children, and practically implores the FAA to make it a requirement.  To make it illegal for babies to travel in their parents' laps in an airplane, just like is in a car.  As NTSB Accident Investigator Nora Marsh says in this video:  "The laws of physics don't change when you get on an airplane, so why wouldn't you want your child to have the same level of protection as they had in the car?"

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