The need to provide better safety for infants on flights was underlined yet again with the crash of a United Airlines jet earlier this year in Sioux City, Iowa.
Several infants were on that flight, and subsequent testimony from flight attendants urged that child-restraint devices be used on planes to provide greater safety for babies.
The FAA is preparing a proposal that would require airlines to allow passengers who buy seats for infants to use special restraint seats, such as those used in cars. This proposal is expected to be released for public comment early next year, according to an FAA spokesman.
Now, children under 2 years are not required by FAA regulations to wear a seat belt. Infants also fly free, which means that passengers hold these babies in their arms. The only way you could put a child in a safety restraint device is by buying an extra seat.
"Sitting on an adult's lap is no protection for an infant," said Dr. Mark Widome, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatricians' committee on accident and poison prevention. "Most experts believe that the use of child-restraint seats would help save lives."
Also, airlines are not required to permit passengers the option of using such infant restraint seats, even if they pay for an extra seat. But the Air Transport Assn., an industry group representing U.S. airlines, has indicated that all of its members already accept FAA-approved infant/child restraints, which are strapped into a passenger seat with a regular seat belt.
"In some situations the airlines will allow a passenger to use an unoccupied seat for a child at no charge," an ATA spokesman said.
However, the only way to ensure the availability of a seat in which to place the child under a safety restraint is to buy a ticket for the baby.
The subject of airlines providing restraint seats to passengers with infants is not covered under the new proposal, the FAA spokesman said.
"The FAA proposal doesn't go far enough," said Matt Finucane, safety director of the Assn. of Flight Attendants. "This is a half-hearted approach that will have absolutely no impact on the problem. The only way to really provide safety for infants on flights is to make it mandatory for child-restraint seats to be used."
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board also is looking into the issue of child-restraint seats.
"We have urged that child-restraint seats be manufactured that could be used on planes as well as cars, and such seats are now available," an NTSB spokesman said.
Child-restraint seats maufactured after February, 1985, may also be used on planes.
The cost of buying an extra seat is obviously a major factor restricting greater use of child restraints. Another reason is having to carry an extra piece of baggage that would only be used during the flight.
One solution that has ben discussed is for airlines to keep a supply of such devices at airports.
"We don't have a demand for such child restraints from passengers," said Vince Durocher, district director of marketing for Delta. "If passengers were to ask for these devices, we would then have to address the situation. Even so, we are looking into this issue independently."