Lap kids on planes must be banned for everyone's sake

William J. McGee
FILE - In this Wednesday, June 2, 2010, file photo, a man watches a JetBlue airplane take off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Dozens of JetBlue Airways flights were delayed Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, after a computer failure limited the airline's ability to dispatch planes. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Though traveling on airplanes has become safer over the years, it's been six decades since regulators looked closely at the risks for the thousands of toddlers and babies who travel as “lap kids.” Now, a 24-year-effort by a surviving crew member of a well-known 1989 plane crash to change the regulations has come down to its final few days.

“I have a lot of hope,” says Jan Brown, founder and co-chair of Safe Seats for Every Air Traveler. Her organization's petition to the White House seeks changes to regulations that specify seat restraints on airplanes only for children over 2 years old. Safe Seats needs to log 100,000 signatures on its petition by Oct. 5 — a daunting task as the Obama administration wrangles with health care, a possible government shutdown and Syria.

For Brown, who has spent 24 years lobbying, speaking and testifying before Congress on this issue, it’s been a personal battle.

Brown was chief flight attendant on United Flight 232, a disabled DC-10 that crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989 killing 111. A 23-month-old child, Evan Tsao, was aboard as an "unsecured lap child," as has been standard airline safety policy since 1953. When trouble erupted, Brown told the boy’s mother to put him on the floor. When Flight 232 burst into flames, the mother and child were separated. It later fell to Brown to tell the woman her child had been killed.

Shortly after, Brown began her fight.

Her co-chair at Safe Seats, John Goglia, is a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Though he’s frustrated the FAA hasn’t mandated proper restraints, he says he hopes the White House petition, which apparently has been gaining some traction on the list of priorities, will help.

The issue is personal for him as well.

Prior to joining the NTSB, he was an accident investigator for a union representing USAir (now US Airways) when Flight 1016 crashed in Charlotte, N.C. Among the 37 fatalities was a lap child thrown from the arms of its mother. Goglia wrote of the “indelibly seared” image of a firefighter holding the child’s remains. In addition to several deaths, he is aware of numbers of serious injuries experienced by unrestrained children. “I’ve seen the pain up close and personal,” he said.

It’s not that the FAA argues against child restraints. On its website is found this warning: “Did you know that the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap? Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.” A fair question, of course, is how many passengers visit before they fly, even when this notice is highlighted on the home page?

Those supporting a ban on "lap children" include consumer advocates, labor unions, pediatricians and even the National Transportation Safety Board. For 20 years, the independent government agency has published a “Most Wanted List” of safety initiatives that includes child passenger protection on airplanes: “To date, aviation travel fails to provide one level of safety for all aircraft passengers,” it laments.

Furthermore, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman held a forum in 2010 and declared, “We can’t do a public service announcement and assume that everyone has received the message. … Safety for our smallest travelers should not be considered optional or a luxury.”

In 2010, I was the only consumer advocate on the Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, and I suggested that the FAA (a DOT subsidiary) finally ban lap kids. That October, I chaired a meeting of industry experts from the FAA, DOT, NTSB, Boeing, the airlines and labor unions. I first asked if there was any scientific evidence that unrestrained kids are as safe or safer than restrained kids, and the answer was a definitive no. (That’s why every single state has a child seat law for cars.) So we recommended banning lap kids to then DOT Secretary Raymond LaHood.

But once again the FAA refused, and in 2011 reinforced its “diversion theory,” which holds that some families forced to purchase airline seats for child restraints will drive instead, and driving is more dangerous than flying. There are many fallacies within the diversion theory, which I address at length in my book "Attention All Passengers." But dozens of aviation professionals think the theory itself is bunk.

“The airline industry owns the Department of Transportation,” Goglia says. “It’s all about the economics. And if you talk to people who know statistics, they’ll tell you [diversion] is baloney.” He’s echoed by Brown: “Diversion is ludicrous. It’s a smokescreen.”

Jennifer Stansberry Miller, an advocate for airline accident survivors and victims’ families, says, “In my experience with the FAA, they have always been referred to as the ‘tombstone agency’ that does not effect change until people die. What is unfortunate is that children have died and been injured, yet no change. What is the magic number of fatalities and injuries to make this happen?”

Our committee advocated greater education efforts, and in fairness the FAA followed up. But the message simply has not come through. The proof is found at airports across America — thousands of lap kids fly every day, primarily because caregivers don’t know the risks.

For Brown, the Sioux City crash remains a painful reminder. Without prompting, she notes that Evan Tsao would have just turned 26. The former flight attendant believes she survived that crash in order to shed light on the danger "lap children" really face.

“No FAA official will ever have to face the mother or father of a dead child,” she says. “I did.”

Questions and answers for parents:

Wouldn't a parent be able to hold onto a baby, even if there's an emergency? Not unless you’re a superhero. The g-forces are simply too great.

If it’s so dangerous, why don’t the airlines and/or the FAA do something? Why, indeed. Jan Brown believes she knows why children under 2 are at risk: “They have no voice, they have no vote, they have no lobby. They’re like Kleenex.”

Wouldn't this be government intrusion? No. Some have equated banning lap babies with banning supersized soft drinks and similar regulatory measures. This isn’t intrusive policymaking — it’s the closing of a loophole that has existed since 1953, when the government first required all passengers on airplanes to be restrained, except those under 2. To suggest that infants need not be restrained is to further suggest that adults need not be restrained. The FAA has a responsibility to ensure that everyone on board a U.S. airline is safe, but it has shirked this responsibility for decades when it comes to infants. And the unpleasant truth is that during an incident, an unrestrained baby poses a safety risk to others.

William J. McGee, the lone consumer advocate on the DOT’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, is the author of "Attention All Passengers."