I just don't get it.
Parents wouldn't think of driving anywhere without securely strapping their baby in a safety seat, and they spend countless hours considering which safety seat to buy.
But on airplanes, it's a different story. Everyone -- the American Academy of Pediatrics, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board -- recommends safety seats for young children, but many parents continue to ignore the advice. See what the FAA says at www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/crs.
"Why wouldn't you want your child to be as well protected as you are?" asks Nora Marshall, who oversees the NTSB unit that studies survivability in plane crashes. The NTSB has now renewed the debate on the subject with a new recommendation that each passenger -- including those under 2 -- be restrained in a separate seat in an appropriate child restraint system during takeoff, landing and turbulence.
Everything on a plane -- including coffee pots -- has to be restrained during takeoff and landing and in times of turbulence, notes Marshall, a former flight attendant. Everything, that is, except young children sitting on a parent's lap.
More than 7 million children under the age of 2 fly on parents' laps on American carriers each year, according to government estimates. But you are not required to purchase a seat for your baby until he or she turns 2, and airlines don't charge for families to check a car seat. That is the crux of the issue that has stymied safety experts and pediatricians for years and has perhaps lulled parents into a false sense of security.
"Having flown hundreds of flights, I've never experienced turbulence so strong it would cause me to lose grip of a child," e-mails Erik Kaye, a New Yorker who has flown eight times with his 15-month-old, never buying her a seat.
"It's cheaper and we are trying to take advantage of the savings before having to buy her a seat," says Dwight Zahringer from suburban Detroit, the parent of a toddler.
In fact, the FAA argues that requiring the use of child restraint systems would significantly raise the price of travel for young families and concluded that this would prompt some families to drive instead, which is statistically more dangerous.
But the NTSB counters that "considerable analysis of real-world air and road vehicle data found no clearly defined relationship between diversion from air travel and highway accidents and injuries."
Parents don't appreciate that the use of safety seats can be -- and has been -- a matter of life and death, argues Nora Marshall. She points to past cases in which young children have survived plane crashes because they were restrained in safety seats and others in which children were killed when sitting in parents' laps while the adult survived.
The NTSB, though, can only make recommendations. It is up to the FAA to take action. FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the agency will consider the NTSB's recent recommendation, but the agency has no immediate plans to change its rules. To continue to heighten public awareness, the NTSB has scheduled a public forum for Dec. 9, titled "Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles," which you can view on the NTSB's Web site, www.ntsb.gov. Additional information about the forum can be found at www.ntsb.gov/children.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines, www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/family/baby-on-board-pol.ht l, offers infant fares for children under 2 so that you can use your safety seat, as long as you supply a birth certificate. Virgin Atlantic supplies safety seats to all young children whose parents have purchased a seat for them.
If you don't want to lug your safety seat to the gate, check out www.kidsflysafe.com, which makes CARES, the Child Aviation Restraint System, an FAA-approved, harness-type safety device -- designed by a grandmother -- that fits into a six-inch stuff sack and adjusts to fit airplane seats. It is designed for kids weighing 26 to 44 pounds (typically 1 to 4 years old).
It may be tough to justify buying an extra plane ticket when you don't have to, but isn't your child's safety worth it?
"There's a difference," says Marshall, "between what's allowed and what's safe."