Viewpoints talked to Sarah Tilton, a safety expert at car seat brand Britax, for her advice to families flying on their vacation. She shares the do’s and don’ts for booking your trip, navigating security, boarding the plane and using your child safety seat on board.
Viewpoints: So you’ve done the obvious: chosen a flight without a connection and to coincide with nap time. Anything else you should do when flying with children?
Sarah Tilton: When booking, every member of the family should have their own seat. Children under age two are permitted to ride on your lap, and many families don’t bring the car seats on board because this is permitted. But you should ask for a discounted rate for younger children. It depends on the airline, but if you choose a travel time that is not a popular time for business travelers, the flight is less likely to be full and the airline will be more likely to want to fill the plane. And when you book, request adjacent seats. It’s important to ask about seat assignments then, otherwise the airline will auto-book. If you are using a child restraint, you can’t sit in an exit row and the child will need to be assigned the seat next to the window. Other passengers need to get out quickly in event of an emergency, and needing to attend to a child in a middle or aisle seat could cause a problem with that. It’s an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) guideline.
VP: Are all airlines and airports the same or any considered more child-friendly?
ST: Really they are all about the same. As an adult traveler, I know the TSA does vary. But there are positives. All children under 12 can leave shoes on during security screening.
VP: So are children otherwise subject to the same security? Any tips on making flying with children as painless as possible?
ST: Children do have to go through security and a body scan if they can walk. But they should be allowed to walk through repeatedly if alarms sound instead of security automatically doing a pat down. For parents, my best advice is to dress your children simply, not in layers and no metal. Be conscious of what’s on their clothing and in their hair. You want to avoid setting off the detectors and having the child pulled aside, which naturally would make them scared and nervous. Also having a conversation with your child prior to going to the airport, that their favorite stuffed animal or blanket will be getting to “take a ride down the conveyor belt” will help them know what to expect. Parents should know they will need to take babies out of their carriers and will need to hold an infant while being screened themselves. And everything goes through the X-ray: strollers, slings, backpacks, all the accessories.
VP: What about medicines and formula?
ST: Families are permitted to travel with medicines, formula, juice, breast milk, but only a limited amount, just enough to get to your destination. It’s not subject to the 3 oz. rule, but it can only be a “reasonable amount,” again what you need for the flight. You should take the liquids out and visibly declare that to security. Put it in the tray along with everything else going through, so that it doesn’t look like you are trying to sneak anything through. Just better to bring it up and tell security up front.
VP: What about the boarding process? Can families count on being allowed to board first?
ST: I typically travel every week for work, and it’s interesting that in my experience, families with young children and passengers with special needs aren’t given special consideration like they once had. For the most part, they are being allowed to board after first class and priority travelers, if that. They say the only way to guarantee early boarding is to explain your situation to the gate agent, asking if you can board early. In that respect, there has been kind of a change. The FAA and NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) websites have all kinds of information and advice on this subject.
VP: All states require that kids ride in car seats, but what are the laws when flying?
ST: The only requirement is that at age two and up, you are required to have your own seat. Not actually, though, in a child restraint. Under age two, children can fly in the lap of an adult. It is really up to the parent. The FAA has recommendations about safety; there’s a lot of information out there about the need for seat belt or child restraint when there is turbulence. You sometimes have no indication it is coming. If you are holding a child, you have no time to react. The physics in flight are much like the physics in a car. Some people may think since I am holding my baby, God will protect. It is really a matter of weight and speed. In the event of an emergency landing, an adult body will suddenly go forward, and you may lose your grasp on the child. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of force are thrown into the back of the seat in front of you. The FAA has documented injuries and death related to airline crashes that were otherwise survivable if the person or child had been restrained properly. We take all necessary steps in a vehicle, why not on a plane?
VP: Is it only a matter of time before laws about kids in flight catch up to laws while riding in cars?
ST: The FAA and NTSB aren’t really debating, but there’s been considerable discussion back and forth about child safety on flights. There is a concern that people won’t fly if they are forced to purchase tickets for children, that they will drive instead, and there will be more deaths due to road crashes. Even if we look at car seats and vehicles, no state law is perfect in mimicking best practice. In Florida, you can legally ride outside a car seat at the age of four. North Carolina is age eight or 80 lbs. Tennessee uses a child’s 9th birthday. The problem is that the average human body doesn’t fit into a seat belt until 5’ tall. There’s law, then there’s what happens in practice. Even though it’s not mandated, why would we not do it (use a child restraint) in airplanes?
VP: The change in air pressure can cause babies to be fussy. Any tips for flying with babies?
ST: If you do choose to hold your baby in your lap and the child is nursing, it helps to nurse the infant during take-off and landing. Or give it a bottle in the car seat. I’ve heard the sucking and swallowing action helps equalize the ear pressure. Once the child is older, chewing gum helps.
VP: Anything else to add that you think would be helpful to flying families?
ST: I’d like to just stress that if you are traveling on vacation and you don’t bring a car seat, think about what you will use once you get to your destination. You will undoubtedly be driving. At minimum, you can check it as a piece of luggage. You can get travel bags to protect it. Britax also offers a travel cart. Strap the car seat to the cart, and your child can sit while you roll both, similar to a stroller. That way you are pulling both car seat and child, who doesn’t have to walk. The same travel bag I mentioned which is a protective case can also be used as a backpack with shoulder straps so that you can carry the car seat. It helps make it all easier. There’s also a vest called Cares made of a webbing similar to a seat belt that can be used to strap of child to the airline seat, giving upper torso support. Not for an infant, but it is another option for more protection during the flight.
Sarah Tilton is a child passenger safety advocate with Britax Child Safety Inc., a leading car seat and stroller manufacturer. An active Certified Passenger Safety (CPS) technician and instructor, Tilton frequently participates in child passenger safety activities at a local, state and national level. She is currently active with the Safe Kids Charlotte Mecklenburg coalition and is a member of the North Carolina Child Passenger Safety Training Committee.
Editor’s note: Viewpoints interviewed Tilton in June, 2012. This article was updated November, 2013