Babies + Airplanes + Safety = Duh

Holiday travel season is upon us, and I think I speak for everyone when I say:

Today’s post addresses issues around the safety of children in airplanes, namely why children under 2 years old need their own plane tickets. As I gaze upon the title of this post, I realize that I’m about to get dozens of hits from people googling “kids on airplanes,” with or without additional search terms such as “kicking seat,” “spilling cheerios,” “projectile vomiting,” “screaming like vivisected warthogs,” and “killing my soul.” So welcome, suffering travelers, but let me be clear: a crucial premise of this post is that however obnoxiously kid passengers behave, they deserve the same basic protections for their life and safety that adults get as a matter of routine. If you do not agree with that premise, this is not the post for you. Perhaps you would like to pass the time instead by mailing yourself a bag of dog feces, thus saving someone else a stamp.

So, babies on planes. Airlines do not require children under two to ride in their own seats. Ergo, you can save like $400 per child on a domestic flight by keeping a kid on your lap. Most families with one or more babies could use that kind of cash for other important child-related expenses, such as fire insurance. Am I really about to look you in the eye and tell you to fork that money over to an airline voluntarily? No, you lunatic, because I do not live inside your computer. But if I did live there, I would definitely be looking you in the eye and telling you to buy that ticket.

The under-two policy has nothing to do with the safety of babies on airplanes. It is based on the safety of babies in cars. The policy rests on the argument that if airlines require babies to have their own seats, more families will choose to drive instead of fly. Since the risk of injury or death in an airplane is much lower than the risk of injury or death in a car, the argument goes that implementing a required seat policy will actually lead to more child deaths. As far as I can tell this idea was first advanced by tank-thinkers from the libertarian Cato Institute in the 80s and 90s; certainly it is much in keeping with their general anathema toward regulation. At least one attempt has been made to crunch some numbers: this influential article from 2003 suggests that if 10% of child passengers travel by automobile instead, there will be more excess deaths from automobile crashes than would be prevented in airplane crashes.

I tend to think of traveling by air as a measure of last resort; something you only do if you are required to for your job or if no other conceivable mode of transportation exists. If a stranger stopped me on the way to the airport and said, “For $500 I will drag you from Wisconsin to New York in this canoe, which you will share with my deranged chimpanzee and a pile of human entrails,” I would seriously consider his offer as an alternative to flying. Whereas flying with children is more like riding in that canoe with the chimp howling in your ear and 40 strangers giving you the stinkeye.

Let us assume, however, that the articles’ premises and calculations are correct and that some parents will find the cost of their babies’ seats a barrier to air travel, consequently opting to drive. That presents a tricky policy issue for lawmakers, airlines, and the FAA. Yet I’m still calling this a no-brainer, because for the caretakers of individual children, in my opinion the choice is still obvious. Once you have decided on air travel then the plane vs. car policy question is no longer relevant; the question is how to protect the child who is going to be traveling by air.

Air travel involves so many precautions for unlikely scenarios, from water landings to terrorist attacks. But if you take a baby on an airplane in your arms, you are taking no rational precautions for that baby’s safety. Human arms are not strong enough to hold on to a baby in the event of a crash. I couldn’t find video of an FAA crash test for children held in arms, but here is one for automobiles. Bear in mind that planes travel a lot faster and crash with much greater impact than cars.

One final safety note. If the baby is going to be riding solo, she will need her car seat for the flight, or if it is worth $40 to you to avoid schlepping a car seat through an air terminal, you can use a CARES harness, provided the baby is big enough and can sit up without assistance.

If you step back a bit, there’s nothing strange about the idea of buying a baby her own seat. It has been framed as buying an “extra” seat, as a luxury of some kind, because this policy has been around for a while. But when you have one more person traveling with your party there is nothing weird about the idea that you incur the expense of one more ticket, even if the person is very small or very new. Nobody says, “Oh Charlene, the accountant we just hired, she’s really svelte. She could just squeeze in with Paula from sales and they could share a seat for the flight to Phoenix.” A baby is a person, and in fact babies are a category of people who typically enjoy greater protections than adults. It isn’t buying a baby a seat that’s weird. Spending more resources on your own safety than the baby’s is what’s weird.

Sandra Oh gif credit:

3 thoughts on “Babies + Airplanes + Safety = Duh

  1. Have you seen the movie Fearless with Rosie Perez and Jeff Bridges? They are two survivors dealing with life after an airplane crash. Rosie blames herself for the death of her infant and here Jeff’s character proves to her that it wasn’t her fault.

  2. Hey Adam. No, never saw it! “I know it doesn’t look like a baby, it’s looks like a toolbox”–that’s kind of amazing. And also U2 in the soundtrack. But, aw no Rosie, it’s not your fault, it’s the FAA’s. I did see Flight a few weeks ago, which was a really stupid decision right before holiday travel, cause now I’m constantly worrying about my pilots’ sobriety.

  3. Hi there! Thiis blog post could not be written much better!

    Reading through thiis article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I most certainly will forward this post to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

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