Are These Obscure FAA Regulations Putting Babies in Danger?

Restrictions on baby carriers during takeoff and landing are based on a single study from 1994 that didn’t even study these types of devices.


On a recent Southwest flight from New York City to Kansas City, I had perfectly planned nap time for my 5-month-old son such that he would sleep for most of the 2.5-hour flight.

Peaceful and unconcerned, my baby slept strapped to my chest, in his carrier—that is, until flight attendants started haranguing me, telling me that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations dictated that the baby had to be taken out of his carrier for takeoff and landing, forcing me to comply.

According to the overzealous flight attendants, a worn baby carrier (like an Artipoppe, which is what we use, or a Baby Bjorn) is unsafe during a few scenarios: During takeoff and landing, if a pilot needs to hit the brakes and have the plane come to a halt, the parent's body weight might in some way exert pressure on the baby and squish him against the front seat. Plus, in the event of an evacuation, a child needs to be able to easily go down a slide and get a life vest strapped to them, the flight attendants added.

The claim that a baby removed from his carrier is safer if the pilot hits the brakes is suspect at best: If I were holding the baby in my arms during any kind of high-impact event, he would be less safe than when snugly strapped to my body, more likely to go flying (which is what tragically killed a Canadian 6-month-old back in 2012). It would take an extraordinarily high-impact event for my small frame to crush my child's body.

When asked by Reason whether it has done studies on the safety of an infant in a baby carrier versus being unrestrained during these hypothetical scenarios, the FAA pointed me to the guidance that I had already linked to in my initial email. Further research indicated that the current FAA guidance on in-flight child restraints is built off of a single study from 1994, conducted by the agency's Civil Aeromedical Institute, which tested booster seats, belly belts (seatbelts that are attached to the adult's seatbelt, and loop around an infant's belly, which are prohibited in the U.S. but oddly mandated by many European airlines), seat-attached harness restraints, and the like, but never actually tested worn baby carriers like Baby Bjorns. An advisory circular from '92 simply states that "a child restraint device that positions the child on the lap or chest of an adult seated in a passenger seat should not be used."

In other words, the FAA has banned the use of something due to how unsafe it is despite the fact that it hasn't tested it for safety. (When I brought this up to an FAA spokesperson, they replied: "The FAA conducted impact tests with a variety of child restraint systems"—just not the ones that I'm talking about, that millions of families useadding that "any manufacturer can ask the FAA to safety test its device.")

Also from the 29-year-old FAA study: "These conclusions should not be construed as an indication that a dangerous condition exists for children traveling in commercial transport airplanes. The accident rate for commercial operations in 1991 was 0.32 per 100,000 departures, which affirms the fact that commercial aviation is a very safe mode of transportation."

So not only has the FAA not studied the thing it's banned, but it's also admitting that there's not really any reason to worry about child safety on flights—and that's from three decades ago. Airplanes keep getting safer and safer, equipped with better technology as the years go by.

This is just one small way that clumsily crafted government regulations make parenthood harder and worse than it needs to be. FAA guidance, for example, strongly advises parents to put infants in car seats while flying, discouraging babywearing altogether. This is impractical, as most airlines allow you to travel with a lap child under the age of 2, which means you can avoid buying a separate ticket for the child. If installing a car seat on a plane, you must buy a separate ticket, adding a few hundred dollars of expenses to every single trip you take, or more for international trips. Per my back-of-the-envelope calculations, buying a seat for my son for each trip we've taken in the first five months of his life would have added roughly $1,650 in total expenses. And for a New York City family like ours, this would also require purchasing a car seat, since we do not own one.

Not only that, but installing an infant car seat on a plane is an entirely unnecessary feat. The most common safety concern while flying is turbulence, which can, in extremely severe cases, give unrestrained passengers bumps, bruises, and head trauma. That's really why seat belts exist on planes, given that you would probably perish if a more serious problem presented itself. The turbulence concern is arguably a bigger deal for a baby who is less sturdy and more likely to go flying through the air; the baby being restrained via any means is an improvement over being totally unrestrained, held only in a parent's arms.

As for flight attendants' evacuation concern, there's no scenario during an emergency landing where it would make sense to remove the baby from being tethered to my body, as a young baby cannot go down an evacuation slide on his own. But such landings are rare to the point where it probably doesn't make sense to craft regulations around such hypotheticals. Slide deployments happened on domestic flights in 2010 and 2016 not due to emergencies, but due to two separate incidents of flight attendants gone rogue who both ended up being fired; accidental or wrongful slide deployment is much more common than necessary emergency slide deployment.

For the FAA and overly cautious flight attendants, the overregulation of childhood has few costs. But for parents who have perfectly timed a baby's flight nap, who are getting hassled for babywearing and must then wake the baby up to remove him from his carrier for no good reason at all (leading to 2.5 hours of straight fussing), traveling with kids becomes much more miserable than it needs to be.