Frequent flier Kalyn Salinas runs a travel planning firm, and since becoming a mom, many of her flights are taken with her daughter, currently 21 months old. She’s flown with her daughter in her lap — referred to as “infant in arms,” and available only for children under the age of 2 — on at least 15 flights, including international journeys. But the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 incident earlier this month — in which the since-grounded Boeing 737 Max 9’s cabin door plug detached midair, causing what the airline called a “rapid decompression of the airplane” — and subsequent warnings from safety experts about the risks infants and small children face when they don't have their own seats have prompted Salinas to reconsider how she flies with her daughter in the future.
“If there had been a passenger holding a kid close to where that panel blew off, the explosive force was such that a kid being held would have been torn from the hands of their parent, and they would have been sucked out the plane,” Kwasi Adjekum, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Aviation, told the Washington Post last week. “The practice of holding kids on your lap, especially for takeoff and other vulnerable phases of flight — it’s highly frowned upon and discouraged.”
As a parent, Salinas tells Yahoo Life that these warnings have “solidified a concern I had on our flight home from Maui last week: What am I supposed to do with my toddler when the pilot warns of turbulence?” On a recent flight in Europe, she was offered a seatbelt extension to keep her daughter safely secured on her lap, but she says that hasn't been the case on a lot of the U.S. flights she's taken. But even with a separate cabin seat purchased for her daughter, she's found that keeping a “wild, independent” toddler put for a full flight is a major challenge.
“It was really difficult for takeoff and landing to even put the seatbelt on,” she shares. “Toddlers are old enough to have an opinion but not old enough to fully understand. I’m asking myself: If I need to get somewhere, how do I do it so that my child is safe, but also how do I make it through with my sanity intact?”
Although the Federal Aviation Administration allows a child under the age of 2 to fly as a lap baby, they also recommend against it. “Your arms aren't capable of holding your in-lap child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence, which is the number one cause of pediatric injuries on an airplane,” the FAA website reads. “The FAA strongly urges you to secure your child in an approved CRS [child restraint system] or other approved device for the entirety of your flight.”
Shelby O'Brien, a mom of three small children, is following this advice. Though she used to fly with a baby on her lap, she now always purchases a seat for them to use with an approved car seat. For O'Brien, the change provides both safety and convenience. “It's safer for them, and it allows us the ability to have our arms free to keep them entertained and dish out snacks,” she tells Yahoo Life. “While, hopefully, this specific incident won't occur again, turbulence and accidents during takeoff and landing are more likely and can also make babies a projectile. While we like to think that parental instinct will kick in and we'll be able to keep our kids safe, that just isn't always the case in these unpredictable instances.”
Not all parents are fazed by the warnings, however. Whitney Robinson is a mom to a 10-month-old whom she has traveled with six times to date. “While I completely understand the safety warning, I still plan on holding him,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I put him in a baby carrier during the flight so he's strapped to me. Yes, having him ride in his car seat in a separate seat is the absolute safest option. That being said, I also think that having him strapped to me is also a very safe option.” What she'd like to see, in the aftermath of the Alaska Airlines incident, is airlines making “adjustments to ensure the safety of their passengers” or tightened safety requirements from the FAA.
Kristin Addis, a mom of a 1-and-a-half-year-old son who has accompanied her on over 100 flights to 10 countries, has also relied on a baby carrier during flights. “When he was an infant, I pretty much always had him in a baby carrier,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Of course, it is safer to have a baby in a car seat or CARES device on a plane. But what’s also worth considering is that a toddler is not going to happily sit in a car seat for most of a long flight.”
The FAA does not allow babies to be in a wearable baby carrier for takeoff and landing, though reports from frequent-flier parents suggest that this rule is not always enforced. Another challenge for parents is navigating the varying seat sizes within planes that may or may not fit their FAA-approved car seats. Salinas, for example, purchased a separate cabin seat for her daughter just once, bringing along her Doona car seat only to find that it didn't fit in her assigned seat. “It only fit in one of a few seats on the plane that were wide enough,” she says. “I didn't book the seat it could fit and I didn't know how to find out which it was. I had to take the baby out of the seat and flip it over and prove to the flight attendants that it was FAA-approved. Luckily, people volunteered to switch, but if not, I would have bought the seat but not been able to use it.”
Arden Joy, founder of Girls Who Travel and a mom of two, recently flew with her 8-month-old infant for the first time following the Alaska Airlines incident. “Since that door blew out, I have lain awake every night picturing her getting sucked out of the plane,” she tells Yahoo Life. Unfortunately, although she bought her daughter an extra seat and an FAA-approved car seat for travel, she had a similar issue with seating arrangements. “We had booked two middle and two aisle seats, thinking we’d keep the family together,” she says. But upon boarding, she was told the car seat needed to go in a window seat. Despite being FAA-compliant, the car seat wouldn't fit in the newly assigned space. “Finally, as frustrated passengers were filling the aisle waiting for us, a flight attendant shoved it into the seat, but it was at such an odd angle and I couldn’t get the seat belt over it, so I didn’t feel like it really did anything,” Joy says. “So after all that, I ended up sitting with my daughter on my lap for pretty much the entire four-and-a-half hours.”
Some parents feel that the FAA could be doing more to make it easier for parents to fly with their babies in approved car seats, as the organization recommends. Others believe the focus should be on making everyone on board more secure by prioritizing aircraft safety standards. Addis notes that there are dangers for anyone flying without proper restraints. “While parents do need to take on responsibility for keeping their kids safe, there is of course responsibility on the airlines' part to keep passengers safe,” she says. “Anyone who happened to be walking by or who was out of their seat at the wrong moment could have had a bad outcome as well.”