During takeoffs and landings, federal safety regulations require passengers to buckle in, stow their bags, and place their tray tables in the upright and locked position.
Those same passengers, however, are allowed to hold on their laps, without any restraint, an infant or toddler under age 2.
It doesn't make sense, and last month the five-member National Transportation Safety Board said as much. After a unanimous vote, the board said it was unacceptable that the Federal Aviation Administration had failed to act on earlier recommendations that infants and small children be restrained on takeoff and landing, and in turbulence. Barring so-called "lap children" on planes is one of the board's "Ten Most Wanted" safety improvements.
The FAA largely agrees. A spokeswoman said, "We want children off laps and into child safety seats," but the agency is refusing to issue rules to make that happen because it is concerned that families forced to buy another ticket (lap children fly free) will instead drive a car and face greater risk of being in an accident.
"We've struggled from a policy point of view on what kind of impact a rule would have on parents who can't afford to purchase another ticket," said Alison Duquette, the FAA spokeswoman. "Driving is 25 times more dangerous than flying."
Duquette said the FAA is continuing to review the issue, but for now it is urging parents to voluntarily buy a ticket for their child and use a child safety restraint approved for airline use. Duquette said some airlines let parents put their children in safety restraints in empty seats.
This is an issue few of us ever think about. I flew several times with my son when he was younger than 2, and I never thought about the safety risks. I was more worried about holding onto him as he squirmed to get out of my arms.
Lap children, an estimated 1 percent of all airline passengers, were allowed initially for practical reasons. In the early days of commercial aviation, seat restraints couldn't accommodate infants and toddlers so they were allowed to fly on their parents' laps.
The situation is different today. All US states require young children to be restrained in safety seats when traveling in an automobile, and most of those seats are certified for use on airplanes.
As the NTSB said in an Aug. 3 report, "The resulting reality is that many of the approved safety restraints now used to transport infants to and from airports end up flying as checked baggage while those infants ride in the cabin unprotected."
Because air travel is so safe, lap children are not in grave danger. But accidents do happen.
In 1994, the NTSB investigated an accident in Charlotte, N.C., where a 9-month-old infant slammed into several seats and died when her mother was unable to hang onto her when their plane crashed. The board said the child would have survived had she been restrained.
"Both laboratory testing and real-world accidents have proven that under high load-force events, when restraint is most important, arm strength is not sufficient to protect even a small child," the NTSB said in its report.
The Charlotte incident prompted the safety board to ask the FAA to forbid lap children, but the FAA responded with a report suggesting that such a rule would divert more children and parents to cars and result in more accidents.
In December 1999, Jane Garvey, the FAA administrator then, reversed course. She said the agency planned to issue a rule requiring all passengers, including infants and toddlers, to be restrained during takeoff, landing, and turbulence. But the rule was never issued, primarily, Duquette said, because of lingering concerns about the diversion issue.
In its report last month, the NTSB said those concerns were largely unwarranted. The board looked at the period before and after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which had a dramatic impact on air travel. From 2000 to 2002, the board found, domestic air travel declined 8.3 percent while driving increased 4 percent.
Over the two-year period, the board said, driving fatalities increased by just over 1 percent while driving injuries declined 8.7 percent. Among children under age 5, fatalities were down 12.4 percent and injuries down 11.9 percent.
"In total, there does not appear to be a clearly defined relationship between diversion from air travel and highway accidents or injury," the board said.
Bruce Mohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.