Ten years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board turned a bright light on child safety aboard airliners after a 9-month-old infant died when the mother lost her grip on the baby in a US Airways crash in Charlotte. The agency added airline child restraints to its most-wanted list.
But a decade later, little has changed, say safety advocates.
Yesterday, the NTSB attempted to address the issue, calling for young children to be restrained in their own seats aboard airline flights. The NTSB board voted to red-flag the issue and designated the inaction over the past decade as "unacceptable." The board urged the Federal Aviation Administration to act quickly.
Under current rules, airlines allow children under age 2 to fly free as long as they are held on an adult's lap during a flight.
"As a mother, I can't imagine ever knowingly putting my children in a situation where they would be less safe than I am. I had to ask myself, what kind of parents would do that, but I did it . . . before I knew what I know now," said NTSB board member Deborah Hersman at yesterday's meeting. "I'm sure most of the people in this room didn't wear seat belts when we were kids. It wasn't because our parents didn't want us to be safe. It was because they didn't know."
The federal government has been slow to require restraints for infants and toddlers despite long support from safety experts, the American Academy of Pediatrics and unions representing flight attendants, who have testified before Congress about the horrors of seeing unbuckled children killed or injured.
The FAA acknowledges the safety risks of having children unbuckled on airlines but is concerned about the practical impact of making restraints a requirement. It is unclear how many children's car seats are compatible with a typical 18-inch airline seat, even though most of the later-model car seats pass the FAA's safety test. Many airlines offer discounts of up to half off an adult fare for seats on domestic flights for children under age 2, but the discounts vary and still add up to a significant additional cost for families traveling with children.
A handful of companies catering to frequent-flier parents offer products that they say properly secure toddlers on airlines. US Airways has a marketing agreement with Baby B'Air to offer a flight discount to parents who purchase the company's child safety vest that connects to an airline seat. Another product, the Sit N Stroll, is a folding stroller designed to fit down the aisles of most aircraft and collapse into a seat on a typical airliner.
The FAA conducted a study in 1995 that concluded that some passengers would choose to drive instead of fly to their destinations if the agency required child restraints. The agency said it is still not convinced that forcing the restraints would improve safety because it says driving poses a higher risk of fatalities or injuries than flying.
"It's not for lack of effort" that the FAA has not acted sooner, said Peggy Gilligan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for regulation and certification. "What the FAA has struggled with is to make sure we are making a safety improvement for aviation that doesn't have an unintended consequence . . . the potential for some small number of families to end up on the road, where the safety risk is 25 times higher for fatalities and injuries."
A study conducted last year by a group of pediatricians agreed with the FAA's findings about diverting air passengers to the road. "There are likely to be more deaths if regulation is enacted than if it is not," said Thomas Newman, a doctor who authored the independently funded study with two others. He said parents who do not use airline seat restraints for their babies and toddlers "shouldn't feel like they are bad parents putting their children at risk because the risk is very, very small."
The NTSB staff criticized the argument about auto accident deaths yesterday, saying that the majority of highway deaths do not involve families and that parents traveling with small children do not constitute a high-risk group likely to have fatal accidents, such as teenagers and drivers under the influence of alcohol. "In total, there does not appear to be a clearly defined relationship between diversion from air travel and highway accidents or injury," the NTSB staff found.