Mom Sparks Major Debate Over Car Seat Safety on Planes After Being Confronted by Gate Agent

Lindsey Murray
Photo credit: Facebook

From Good Housekeeping

No one said parenting was easy, but throw plane travel with a young child into the mix and you’re faced with a hellish new layer of obstacles.

One mom can attest to that after United Airline officials reportedly questioned her 8-month-old daughter’s car seat use on a recent flight. On June 10, Cassie Hutchins shared in a Facebook post that after boarding her flight at Denver International Airport, she strapped her infant into a rear-facing Graco car seat, which is what the manual apparently recommended for her baby's age and weight. However, an agent reportedly told her that she needed to turn the car seat to face forward before the flight could take off.

"They told us that the plane could not leave without us moving it, so I knew we would be kicked off if we did not comply," Hutchins wrote in her post.

Ultimately, Hutchins turned her daughter’s seat forward, but says she wasn’t able to safely strap the seat in using the airplane’s seat belt and instead had to hold her baby's head back to stop it from being thrown forward throughout the flight.

In response, United told USA Today that it launched an internal investigation to review the incident and refunded Hutchins's daughter's plane ticket.

But Hutchins's situation got us (and other parents on Facebook) thinking: What exactly is the correct protocol when it comes to using car seats on a plane? To get to the bottom of it all, we tapped our pros in the Good Housekeeping Institute.

First things first, do kids really need to be in car seats on a plane?

The FAA does not require any child to use a car seat, but it's advised. While some parents of children under 24 months choose to fly with their kid sitting on their laps, the Federal Aviation Administration says that using a "government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device" in a forward-facing airline seat is your safest bet. But, what the heck does that mean?

Photo credit: CARES

Basically, not all car seats are okay to use on planes. The car seat you’re already using in your car certainly could be airplane-safe, but you’ll want to make sure it’s a hard-backed safety seat that’s approved for both motor vehicles and aircrafts. If your car seat meets this standard, it will have the words "this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft" printed somewhere on it. The FAA also approves the use of the CARES Child Safety Device for children between 22 and 44 pounds, as long as it's printed with the words "approved for aircraft use only."

Rachel Rothman, the chief technologist in the Good Housekeeping Institute, also says that along with making sure your seat is airplane-approved, you’ll want to make sure that you check its dimensions to make sure it will fit. “Airlines with a website are required to publish the weight of the narrowest and widest seats in each class,” she explains. If your car seat doesn’t have airline approval or is too big for the airline’s restrictions, you may be asked to check it as baggage.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that children under 40 pounds use a car seats - but if the idea of lugging a car seat on a plane sounds daunting, it's also important to consider that injury during turbulence is rare. According to the FAA, 321 passengers were injured by turbulence between 2006 and 2016.

So, do car seats need to be installed differently on planes?

It depends. You’ll want to check the manufacturer’s instructions that came with your car seat. It will give you specific height, weight, and age recommendations to help you decide if your child’s seat should be front- or rear-facing on a plane.

Rothman says generally, installing a rear-facing seat on a plane is the same as installing it in a car, but forward-facing seats may require some extra maneuvering. "The rule states that the actual plane seat needs to be forward-facing, not the car seat," explains Rothman. “Sometimes people misinterpret that which may be the reason for this issue."

No matter how your manual instructs you to install your seat, it’s important to always make sure that the airline seat itself is facing the direction that the plane will be traveling in. It may also be helpful to pack the specific installation instructions, too - in case you run into any issues while on board.

What if my kid uses a booster seat?

Know that the FAA prohibits the use of booster seats and harness vests during ground movement, take-off, and landing. It may seem strange, but the government agency has found that these devices don’t provide the best protection during these portions of your flight, and a child big enough to use a booster seat in a car is better off just using the airline’s provided seat belt.

There are no official FAA restrictions for using these types of restraints during the cruise portion of the flight, however some specific airline policies may ban them entirely, so it’s important to check directly before you get to the airport.

Okay, but can you tell me which car seats are best for planes?

These are the Good Housekeeping Institute's favorite car seats and restraints when it comes to air travel.

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