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Taking the Kids

Winging It With Child Safety Seats

July 24, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ

Veteran United Airlines flight attendant Jan Brown-Lohr doesn't pull punches anymore. When she encounters a parent holding a baby who could be strapped into a car seat on a nearby empty seat, she matter-of-factly tells the parent her story.

Brown-Lohr was a flight attendant aboard United Flight 232 when it crashed in an Iowa cornfield in Sioux City five years ago this month. Among the survivors was 11-month-old Sabrina Nicholson who flew out of her mother's grasp, landing in an overhead bin 15 rows away. Sabrina only lived because a passenger, fleeing the plane, heard her cries and rescued her. Another baby was among 111 passengers who died.

"People just don't think it's going to happen to them," said Brown-Lohr, herself a mother of three. "That's what we're up against. And we're not doing our best for the little people who can't protect themselves."

Ever since that horrible summer day, the issue of restraining young children on planes--which means parents must purchase tickets for them--has been hotly debated. Brown-Lohr and her union, the Flight Attendants Assn., have been tireless crusaders for legislation that would require children under 2, who ride free on U.S. airlines, to have their own airline seat and to be buckled up in a car seat approved for aircraft use.

Airline officials say as many as 10,000 babies and toddlers are flying every day--more than 36 million a year, most without tickets and, therefore, without their own seats.

But legislation to restrain them, thus far opposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, remains bogged down in Congress, despite support from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, the Air Transport Assn. and the Airline Pilots Assn. An FAA spokesman said a new policy statement on the issue will come later this summer with the conclusion of more research.

The FAA recommends that infants be secured during takeoff and landings, but the agency has been unwilling to mandate the policy, arguing that the cost of purchasing tickets for young children would drive parents away from air travel and onto statistically more dangerous highways.

Supporters scoff at the logic and speculate that such a measure would likely spur airlines to create more discounted fares for families. Parents don't quit flying once children are too old to fly free, they argue.

"If parents knew the risk they were taking, they wouldn't tolerate this for five minutes," said Washington Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, co-sponsor of the legislation.

Nor is it just the remote chance of being in a plane crash. "We have kids injured every day when turbulence hits," said Jo Deutsch, chief lobbyist for the 33,000-member Association of Flight Attendants.

Parents have the option right now of purchasing a ticket for a young child and carrying the car seat on board. Make sure it is stamped with a label specifying that it is "certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft."

Representatives Unsoeld and Lightfoot urge parents to use car seats and to voice their opinion on the issue to the FAA and to their U.S. representatives and senators (call the FAA at 800-FAA-SURE or the House and Senate at 202-224-3121).

The FAA is expected to release a study later this summer that questions the safety of using many standard car seats on aircraft.

First the good news that is of no surprise: After simulating crash conditions, the study clearly shows that children 20 pounds or less are far safer secured in a rear-facing infant car seat than on a parent's lap. "Absolutely infants are better off in a seat," said Van Gowdy, who conducted the research at the FAA's Oklahoma City-based Civil Aeromedical Institute.

But standard front-facing car seats appeared problematical in this study. "Their performance in airplane seats is not the same as in cars," he said. Gowdy explained that forward-facing seats for toddlers and preschoolers weighing 20 to 40 pounds caused injuries because they couldn't be anchored tightly enough to the seats to prevent the child's head from hitting the seat in front of him. Booster seats, which are backless, cannot protect a child from a seat that collapses forward. He suggested that car seat design be modified for effective airline use.

Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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