We know it’s not mandatory. We know it’s expensive. But we also know that the FAA recommends using car seats on planes. So if we bite the bullet and purchase baby their own seat on the airplane, and lug their car seat (or go through the expense of purchasing an additional car seat specifically for travel) what happens when we run into trouble once we’re on board?
Sadly many flight crews are not well-versed on the proper usage of cars seats on planes, nor the FAA requirements around their correct usage.
It’s my goal with this post to inform parents choosing to purchase an airline ticket for their baby or toddler about the correct usage of car seats on planes, and to provide them with resources they should print and bring with them should they run into any issues while flying with car seats.
Who needs car seats on planes?
If your child rides in your car in a car seat, they can use their car seat on the plane so long as it bears a sticker that clearly says it’s approved for use on an airplane. And while lap infants are legal and certainly the most economical way to travel with an infant, if you purchase an airline ticket for baby they must ride in their own seat in an airplane-approved car seat, or FAA-approved harness. If a flight is not full, some airlines will allow you to bring up your car seat and use it if you snag a free seat. However, you will end up having to gate check your car seat if you can’t use it. If that happens, it’s best to travel with a car seat travel bag that will offer some padding and protect your car seat should you have to gate check it.
You should use your car seat on board the plane as you do in a car. If they are rear-facing in your car, they should be rear facing on the plane–even if it interferes with the recline of the seat in front of you. More on that later.
Current guidelines suggest that extended rear facing in the car is the safest choice for your child. If you choose to travel with their car seat, and they are within the seat’s limits for either rear or forward-facing, for American airlines that are governed by the FAA it is your choice as to how the seat should be installed. It’s easier to install a forward-facing car seat on a plane, so if you choose to switch your child for the flight, remember the shoulder harness straps need to be raised to forward face, and must be lowered if you decide to rear-face in the car once you’ve arrived at your destination.
How do I install a car seat on a plane?
I will be honest. Installing a car seat on a plane is a real pain in the a**. Installing to face forward is much easier, Installing to rear face is trickier and will likely require a seat belt extender from the flight attendant. You may need one to forward face anyway. When you board with your car seat it’s best to ask for one right away anyway–it’s a lot easier to hand back an unused one than struggle to install and try to get the flight attendant’s attention once everyone’s boarding.
This video produced by the FAA made me giggle because it’s not really realistic. However, in a perfect world, yes–you’ll have ample room in the bulkhead to install your toddler’s lightweight car seat while they happily play with daddy’s cell phone. It’s more likely that you’ll need to contort yourself in a tiny seat pitch as you sweat and grunt to install it anywhere close to the perfect recline.
The main points to remember are:
-Ensure that your car seat is approved for airplane use, and be ready to show the flight attendant the sticker on your seat that certifies it.
-Ask for a seat belt extender as you’re first boarding, even if you don’t know if you’ll need it.
-Raise the armrest. It’s not a big deal if you can’t put it down again once the car seat is installed.
-Install the car seat in the window seat so as not to block exit access for the rest of the row.
What if the flight attendant tells me I can’t use my car seat on the plane?
Sadly, this happens a lot. The biggest problem I’ve heard about has been that the car seat interferes with the seat in front’s ability to recline. A few years ago a reader got in touch about an issue she had with KLM, and they actually ended up changing their car seat policy. One reader had an issue with Air Canada. However, it was a recent message from another reader about KLM–in spite of their policy changes–that prompted me to write this post and give parents options on how to manage any negativity from flight crews about car seat usage.
For clarity’s sake, these are FAA regulations and recommendations, that govern American air carriers. CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) and EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) all recommend car seats on planes, but do not have this level of governance over their airlines–they defer to the individual airlines’ policies. Before flying, I recommend printing your your airlines’ policy regarding car seats on planes, and I also recommend printing out this document from the FAA; some of the more relevant passages are highlighted here (emphasis mine) and I suggest you do the same:
Section 10. REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS REGARDING THE USE OF CRSs ON AIRCRAFT:
10b. Proper Use of CRS:
If a child occupies a CRS, a parent/guardian must accompany the child and the aircraft operator must comply with the requirements that the child is properly secured in the CRS, the CRS is properly secured in a forward-facing seat, the child does not exceed the weight limits of the CRS, and the CRS is approved and has the proper labels or markings.
This is often mis-interpreted by flight attendants to mean that the car seat must be forward facing. If you re-read it a little more carefully, you’ll see it means that the seat the CRS (Child Restraint System) is installed in a forward-facing seat, not that the CRS must be forward-facing.
Under the provisions in parts 121, 125, and 135, no certificate holder may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS when the parent/guardian purchases a ticket for the child. (Certificate holders are encouraged to allow the use of empty seats to accommodate CRS; however, they are not required to allow unticketed children to occupy empty passenger seats, even if the child uses a CRS.)
This means, if your car seat is approved, they MUST allow you to use it.
10f. Operators Prohibiting CRS Use:
No aircraft operator may prohibit a child from using an approved CRS when the parent/guardian purchases a seat for the child. If an approved CRS, for which a ticket has been purchased, does not fit in a particular seat on the aircraft, the aircraft operator has the responsibility to accommodate the CRS in another seat in the same class of service. The regulations also permit an aircraft operator to use its discretion in identifying the most appropriate forward-facing passenger seat location, considering safe operating practices. For example:
(1) A CRS with a base that is too wide to fit properly in a seat with rigid armrests can be moved to a seat with moveable armrests that can be raised to accommodate the CRS.
(2) An aft-facing CRS that can not be installed properly, because of minimal pitch (distance between seats) between rows, can be moved to a bulkhead seat or a seat in a row with additional pitch.
This means the airline is required to accommodate you and your car seat. That if your car seat doesn’t fit, they must move you to a seat where it does. If your rear-facing car seat interferes with the row in front, they must move you to to one where it doesn’t.
Section 18. PLACEMENT OF CRS ON THE AIRCRAFT:
CRSs must be installed in forward-facing aircraft seats, in accordance with instructions on the label. This includes placing the CRS in the appropriate forward or aft-facing direction as indicated on the label for the size of the child. A window seat is the preferred location; however, other locations may be acceptable, provided the Par 16 Page 11 AC 120-87B 9/17/10 CRS does not block the egress of any passenger, including the child’s parent or guardian, to the aisle used to evacuate the aircraft.
Again, this means the airplane seat must be forward-facing, not the car seat. And you may choose to install your car seat rear facing if your child is still within the rear-facing limits of the seat.
If you run into any trouble, try to remain calm and collected. Any losing of tempers and you run the real risk of getting thrown off the plane, even if you’re right. Take notes and names. You’ll be stressed with everything that goes along with flying with a baby, but this is an instance where you really need your wits about you. If you have all this information and they still refuse to allow you to use your seat, you are well within your rights to demand a refund for your baby’s ticket once you arrive.
What are the best travel car seats?
If baby is still little, so long as their infant car seat carrier can be installed without a base, you’re good to go. However, things get a bit more complicated once you move up to a convertible car seat. Many complain that their convertible car seat is just too heavy/bulky/difficult to install to travel with. If that’s the case it might be worth it to purchase an additional seat for use just to travel. We did this and found it handy to have a second car seat in Grandma’s car.
Here are a couple of convertible car seats that are lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to travel with:
This was our travel car seat of choice, due to its light weight (just over 10lbs), low price (around $50 in the US–more in Canada, natch), and ease of installation. You can rear face to 35lbs and it’s good for forward-facing kids up to 40lbs, although depending on how big your kids are, they may grow out of it height-wise a little sooner. The Cosco Scenera‘s limit for height rear-facing is 36″, and 43″ for forward-facing children.
This car seat is a little heavier at 14 pounds, and a little more expensive at around $100, but its height and weight limits are much higher than the Scenera’s, so you just might get a bit more use out of it. The Safety 1st Guide 65‘s rear-facing limits are 36″ for height and 40lbs for weight, and forward facing your child can remain harnessed until 52″ and 65lbs.
Can’t I just check my car seat as luggage?
Well, you can, but many car seat manufacturers consider a checked seat to be a crashed seat, thus voiding the warranty. You have no way of knowing how gently (or not) your car seat has been handled. Car seat safety advocates declare that the only safe way a car seat can be checked as luggage is by using the original packaging it came in, but let’s be real–even if we still had that box kicking around, there’s no way we’re lugging THAT through the airport.
If you’ve purchased a seat for your baby, the point is moot–your car seat is coming on board. If you take your chances in hopes of a seat, or must bring your seat and check it, I highly recommend purchasing a padded car seat travel bag, and gate checking it.
As always, I welcome your feedback! Please share any questions, tips, advice, or stories you may have about using car seats on planes–they’re not quite as scary as snakes!