air travel with childrenAs a child passenger safety specialist, I generally work with parents and caregivers to help install and use their children’s car seats and booster seats in the family vehicle.

I don’t get many questions about children’s safety on airplanes, but it’s an important aspect of child passenger safety. I’d like to share some information for anyone planning air travel with children.

Should I use a car seat on the plane for my child?

Airlines currently allow children under the age of 2 to fly free of charge as lap children. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not require the use of a child restraint system (CRS) on airplanes (although they recommend it). Nevertheless, the same risks of having an unrestrained child in a car exist on a plane. A parent’s arms, no matter how strong, may not be able to hold onto a child against the forces of violent turbulence or rapid deceleration.

Will the airline allow me to use my child’s car seat?

Airlines operating in the US must allow a child to use an approved car seat when the parent or guardian purchases a seat for the child, a parent or guardian accompanies the child, and the child is within the weight limits for the car seat.

Not all car seats are approved for use in airplanes. Check for a label that says, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”

Since putting your child in a car seat requires a ticket be purchased for that child, ask if the airline offers a discount.

Before planning to use a car seat on an international flight on a non-US carrier, check that airline’s policies, as unfortunately some carriers do not allow the use of car seats.

How should I use my child’s car seat on the plane?

A child weighing less than 20 pounds should use a rear-facing child car seat. For an infant seat, refer to your car seat manual to see if the instructions recommend using with or without the base. Children weighing between 20 and 40 pounds should sit in a forward facing car seat.

It’s also a good idea to measure the width of your car seat. It should fit in most airplane seats if it is no wider than 16 inches.

The FAA has also approved one harness-type device for children weighing between 22 to 44 pounds. This device is not approved for use in motor vehicles.

Use the airplane seat belt for children over 40 pounds.

What about booster seats?

Of course, bringing car seats and booster seats with you for your children to use in any vehicle they ride in on your journey is a great idea. Just remember, belt-positioning booster seats require both a lap and shoulder belt to restrain your child, so you cannot use the aircraft lap-only belt. Check or stow your child’s booster seat until you reach your destination. See this booster seat blog for more information on these seats.

Where can I get more information about my child’s safety on an airplane?

The FAA has a web page about Flying with Children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers information on Family Friendly Flying.

Maureen Johnson is the Child Passenger Safety Specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

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