In a plane, as in a car, small children should be securely belted into safety seats

TAKING THE KIDS

July 31, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

When United Airlines flight attendant Jan Brown-Lohr encounters a parent holding a baby who could be strapped into a car seat on the empty seat next to them, she tells the parent her story.

Ms. Brown-Lohr was a flight attendant aboard the ill-fated United Flight 232 the July day it crashed in an Iowa cornfield in Sioux City five years ago. Eleven-month-old Sabrina Nicholson flew out of her mother's grasp, landing in an overhead bin fifteen rows away. A passenger fleeing the plane rescued her.

Twenty-three-month old Evan Tso wasn't so lucky. The force of the impact carried him down the aisle too, despite his mother's valiant efforts to hang on to him. She survived. He was among the 111 passengers who died.

Ever since that horrifying day, the issue of restraining young children on planes -- requiring parents to purchase tickets for them -- has been hotly debated. Ms. Brown-Lohr, the mother of three grown children, and her union, the Association of Flight Attendants, have been crusading for legislation that would require children under 2 to sit in their own seat, restrained in a car seat approved for aircraft use.

Airline officials say as many as 10,000 babies and toddlers are flying every day -- more than 36 million a year, most without tickets -- or seats.

But legislation to restrain them, opposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, remains bogged down in Congress despite the support of the National Transportation Safety Board, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, the Air Transport Association and the Airline Pilots Association. An FAA spokesman says a new policy statement on the issue will come later this summer.

The FAA recommends that infants be secured during takeoff and landing. But the agency has been unwilling to mandate the policy, arguing that the cost of tickets for young children would drive parents away from air travel and onto more dangerous highways, ultimately costing more lives.

Supporters of car seats scoff at the logic, arguing that such a measure likely would spur airlines to offer more family fares. Parents don't quit flying once children are too old to fly free, they argue.

"If parents knew the risk they were taking, they wouldn't tolerate this for five minutes," says Washington Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, co-sponsor of the legislation.

It's not just the one-in-a-million chance of being in a plane crash either. "We have kids injured every day when turbulence hits," reports Jo Deutsch, the chief lobbyist for the 33,000-member Association of Flight Attendants.

Iowa Rep. Jim Lightfoot, co-sponsor of the bill and a qualified pilot, says, "There is nothing that is not required to be tied down on take off and landing -- except a small child."

"We take more care with coffee pots than we do with young children," adds Ms. Deutsch.

Parents now have the option of purchasing a ticket for a young child and carrying the car seat on board. (Be sure the car seat is labeled "certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.") Or they can opt to fly during off-peak hours when there's a greater chance that an empty seat will be available to them for their baby, without buying the extra ticket.

Ms. Unsoeld and Mr. Lightfoot urge parents to use car seats and to tell the FAA and their Congressional representatives about their feelings on the issue. You can call the FAA at (800) FAA-SURE or the House and Senate at (202) 224-3121.

But now there is a new wrinkle to the controversy. The FAA is expected to release a study shortly that questions the safety of many standard car seats on aircraft.

First the good news that surprises no one: After simulating crash conditions, the study clearly shows that children weighing 20 pounds or less are far safer secured in a rear-facing infant car seat than in a parent's lap.

But standard front-facing car seats were less protective. "Their performance in airplane seats is not the same as in cars," says Van Gowdy, who conducted the research at the FAA's Oklahoma City-based Civil Aeromedical Institute. He says that forward-facing seats for toddlers and preschoolers weighing 20 to 40 pounds couldn't be anchored tightly enough to the seats to prevent the youngster's head from hitting the seat in front of him.

Booster seats, Mr. Gowdy adds, also were dangerous. He suggested that car-seat design might need to be modified for effective airliner use.

Those who support the use of child restraints on planes say that it is still better to have a young child in a car seat than not.

"We're at the point where people were who started the fight for car seats 25 years ago," lobbyist Deutsch says, noting that car seats now are required in automobiles in all 50 states. "We have got to educate parents."

Adds Ms. Unsoeld: "All we are asking is that children under the age of 2 be given the same protection as you or me."

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