The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets the standards for airline safety in the United States. The FAA does recommend that all children fly seated in an approved child safety seat but it does not MANDATE the use of child safety seats on airplanes. The word mandate is an important one here. Because the FAA does not mandate the use of a safety seat, airlines will allow children UNDER the age of 2 to fly for either a small fee or 10% of the cost of an adult ticket, seated in the lap of their parent. Airlines and travel agents use the lingo of LAPCHILD to describe a baby or toddler flying seated in their parent's lap. Everyone likes the idea of a "free ride" but there are some important points parents need to consider when deciding whether or not to buy an airline seat for their baby.
The airlines, the FAA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and concerned parents have been debating this issue for years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) comes into the discussion because they are the governing body responsible for rating and maintaining list of approved, crash tested car seats . The argument is that airline travel is statistically far safer than driving a car. The fear is that requiring parents to buy an additional airline ticket for their baby may be cost prohibitive. This would force more families to drive on their vacation putting more children at risk for auto accidents.
As a travel industry professional I am often asked my own opinion on the matter. First, please indulge me by saying that back in the early 1990's, with the advent of the internet, most airlines cut commissions paid to travel agents. Today travel agents do not make money by selling airline tickets. I say this so that my motives are understood. I am in favor of children seated in an airline approved car safety seat buckled into their very own airline seat. I say this not as a travel agent but as a mother and traveler who has experienced turbulence at 30,000 feet. It is my humble opinion that the most loving parent in the world cannot hold and protect a child seated in their lap against the g-forces of a jet flying at 500 mph. That said, as a mom, I too have had many challenges balancing the family checkbook so I do understand both sides of this story. To help parents make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase an airline seat for their baby, let's consider the pros, cons and compromises...
Fly Right- The FAA publishes an article and brochure for parents outlining child safety on airplanes. Here parents can find full details and I would urge you to heed their advice. Be sure your child's car seat is one that is approved for airline travel. Check to make sure this detail is printed somewhere on your child's car seat. Make sure your child is the appropriate size for the seat you plan to use and be familiar with instructions and operation of your child safety seat. Securing and operating their child's safety seat is the responsibility of parents, not the flight crew.
Discounts - Many airlines do offer discounts for children so be sure to ask when making your reservations. Generally discounts offered are around 75% of the adult fare but hey, every bit counts. Keep in mind many big online travel web sites may not offer child discounts thru their public online reservation systems. Airline Seating - Airline rules require safety seats to be placed in window seats in a non-exit row.
Is Free REALLY Free? - Each and every airline has their own specific rules when it comes to lap children and how they need to be documented. Often there is a service or ticketing fee which can average 10% of the adult airfare. Foreign airport taxes and fees may also need to be paid by "free" lap children. Be sure to ask, especially if you book your own airfare online. Many large online travel web sites do not calculate these extra charges and parents find themselves unpleasantly surprised at airport check in. Also for foreign flights, remember lap children will still need a passport. Don't forget to calculate those costs as well.
Luggage - It's amazing when you think little humans require so much "stuff" to be safe and comfortable. Most airplanes do not stock diapers, baby food or even offer changing facilities. It's recommended that parents pack a minimum one day supply of these items not to mention strollers, clothing, portable cribs etc. Free lap children are not allowed any luggage allowance. This means mom and/or dad must pack all of junior's necessities into their carry on. Parents need to calculate the cost of excess or oversized luggage fees into the cost of their child's "free" ticket.
Size Of Airline Seats - The average size of most airline seats is 14-16 inches with minimal legroom. Can you and your child sit comfortably in this size space for the length of your flight? Try out this test with a kitchen chair at home if you need any convincing. If it's a long flight, you won't be able to drop your tray table down for meals because there is simply no room. Also consider the feelings and comfort of fellow passengers seated around you. If they have paid full price for their ticket, they might not look kindly on a cranky child infringing their space.
In Case of Emergency- Most airlines are outfitted with a limited number of oxygen masks per row. With a lap child, there may not be enough oxygen masks available.
Time Your Flights - If possible try to schedule flights for times when airplanes are not full. Often if flights are not full, airlines may allow parents some options. They may allow parents to use their child's safety seat on board and not pay for an extra ticket. The other option is they may seat parents next to empty seats to give lap children and their grown ups a little extra space without the extra charge. Remember, this is often a last minute arrangement and totally up to the good graces of the airline and airport check in staff. Parents can call 24 hours prior to departure and inquire about possibilities.
Fly Off Season - Young families with non school age kids or homeschoolers can take advantage of huge vacation deals and discounts by traveling during early May, Sept, Oct or Early Dec or Jan when other kids are in school. Compared to travel during Summer or Spring break weeks, the cost difference can often pay for an airline seat for your baby.
Shop Around- Instead of flying into a major tourist airport or flying a major airline, compare the cost of a charter airline or flying into a smaller airport. Often good deals can be found that can offset the cost of an additional ticket for your baby.