(Editor’s note: This post is updated as of September 5, 2015, due to a recent comment that suggests this is still a real safety issue.
The issue of armrests on a plane is sometimes a contentious one… Who gets dibs? Fortunately that’s usually not an issue when flying with an infant since in a perfect world the person beside you is either someone you’re related to or at least someone you know. But it appears as though the armrest is a serious airplane safety issue that could cause serious injury, instead of just being a source of potential conflict.
A while back, my friend Amanda was flying to Mexico for a family vacation with her husband and their two beautiful boys – five-year-old Cam and (then) 16-month-old Jake. “Wee” Jake (he’s really not so wee!) had fallen asleep across Amanda’s lap, and in her email to me she also sent what she wrote to the airline:
I wanted to bring your attention, to a potentially serious situation. During the flight as my son was sleeping, his hand slid between my side and the arm rest. The armrest was up and unknown to me, the metal hinges were exposed. When the armrest was placed down, it trapped my sons finger guillotine style, which resulted in a deep cut. Had the arm been thumped down heavier, I’m almost sure the finger could have come off. We notified the attendants who offered band-aids, but really had no further interest in the situation.
The airline was Sunwing, and their response was kind of a bummer, especially since we have had such wonderful experiences with them on our flights to Cayo Santa Maria and Trinidad, Cuba. Not all flight crews are created equal, and sadly, not all customer service reps are either. Sunwing responded to Amanda’s query, and I was cc’d on the correspondence (emphasis mine):
Please note that during Flight Attendant training, we advise our trainees that they should allow passengers to fasten their own seatbelt, open their own window shade, put their own armrest down, etc. Additionally, we always encourage infants to be secured, whether the seat belt sign is on or off during flight. Lying across the parent’s lap, although we are sure is more comfortable for the parent, is not the most secure for the infant (in the event of unexpected turbulence,) which unfortunately can happen. Little tiny fingers can easily fit into less visible areas on the aircraft that an adult may not even think twice about, which is why it is the recommended best practice if the infant remains in the seated, “burping” position or in an approved Child Restraint Device (i.e. car seat) during the flight.
Personally, I think the response is lame. You can read it in its entirety here. In Amanda’s reply she pointed out that you’re not going to hold an infant in the burping position for the duration of a flight – ANY length of flight. And I tried to clarify to Terri that, while it would have been nice if the flight attendants had shown some concern for an injured baby in their cabin, the real issue here is that the armrest is a potential safety hazard. Friends found a link to a similar incident on a Qantas 380. (Sunwing did not respond to Amanda’s reply).
It took me a while to write about this because Amanda and I have been doing a bit of “research” (ie intentionally pinching fingers in armrest hinges) on the myriad of flights we’ve taken over the past few months.
I flew Embraer aircrafts to Florida and back twice, and their armrest hinges were pretty flat with a weird rope thing. It looks kind of nasty with the screw stuck out like that, but I shut my finger in it a couple of times to test. If thumped down hard it certainly pinched, but don’t think it would sever.
On our trip to Alberta and back, we flew Airbus aircrafts – a 321 and a 319. Both of them had metal armrest hinges that definitely pinched and hurt when I stuck my finger in and shut it, and maybe could have caused more damage if my finger was the size of an infant’s. When I first saw this I was certain that it was an Airbus issue, since the other case linked to above occurred on a 380 – another Airbus aircraft.
But I just had a look at Sunwing’s website, and their fleet is made up entirely of Boeings (eight 737-800 planes) – and I haven’t flown on a Boeing in a while.
Amanda recently flew to the UK via British Airways on a Boeing aircraft (see her review of British Airways) and took a picture of their hinges (and a fabulous manicure!) and noted that they also had “hinge” armrests, “although the ‘hinge’ part had less metal parts exposed making it less guillotine like than Sunwing. We noticed that one of the armrests in front of the infant cot on the flight from London to Toronto (767 plane), wasn’t moveable at all (gave me a little relief!)”
While in the UK, Amanda and her family also flew a regional airline, Flybe, which has an Embraer fleet. Although her hinges were much nicer than mine!
I was so happy to see that although the Flybe planes had moveable armrests, the metal hinge parts had been covered by a plastic cover. How cool is that? Less chance little tiny infant fingers would be mauled by metal.
This incident has revealed that there is a definite safety issue here, and Amanda’s intent – both by coming to me and trying to correspond with Sunwing – is to prevent this from happening to another infant. Already we can determine that it’s happened to two babies, and that’s two too many in my books.
I queried both Airbus and Boeing to see if there’s something, anything, that can be done to protect little fingers, and I never heard back from either manufacturer. A quick search revealed at least 15 manufacturers of aircraft seats, but I have no way of knowing who made what seats for which aircraft. But now that we know this hazard exists, let’s take extra caution with the aircraft armrests when we’re flying with our children!