(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!
So glad you posted it. Very timely for my trip to Europe coming up. It’s hard to hold a baby in the burp position for 9+ hours. I would have never thought of the dangers an arm rest could pose to my infant son. I plan on passing this around to my traveling friends with infants for sure!
and I just subscribed to the rss feed… we’re relocating overseas and my son is going to need something like the cares system, but unfortunately we can’t afford it as we’re a family with very limited means. Thanks for the chance!
Thanks for this post. Its a good thing to keep in mind, even for older kids sitting upright in their seat. I’ll share it with our facebook friends. Thanks again, Donna.
Thanks for sharing! I am taking my 10 week old on his first flight tomorrow on a 737. I will beware of the armrests!
I never really thought of the armrests and who would keep a baby in a burping position for any length of time! Sunwing’s response is laughable. We will be sure to be careful when flying.
Thanks for the warning.
I didn’t realise they could be so dangerous.
Thank you for this article. My husband and I are flying with our very squirmy eight month old this Saturday, and I never would have thought to watch out for the armrests.
I really don’t mean to be rude, but I’m Australian (researching for a trip to Europe next year) and Quantas is actually spelt Qantas. I thought it was a typo the first time I saw it, but it’s a consistent error across your site.
Thanks for the note, Hannah – fixed the error in the two spots I found it 🙂
We just got off a Southwest flight where we had an extremely traumatic experience with our 3.5 year old. He and his 7-yo brother were going up the aisle ahead of me to exit the plane and the little one, unbeknownst to me as I was trying to carry several bags, had put his fingers under one of the arm rests just as his older brother decided to swing the arm rest down! It was an accident (typical unwitting 7-yo behavior) but our younger boy’s hand was stuck and he was screaming hysterically! I released his hand and found a bloody mess. Truly a large and alarming amount of blood. Panic-stricken I yelled for help and the flight attendant nearby ignored me thinking my son was “throwing a tantrum” (her words). My husband brought a zip up sweat jacket to wrap around the hand. My hands were covered in blood. The cuts clotted well and turned out to be much less severe than we had thought from the quantity of blood they produced, but I shudder to think just how much worse this could have been. This seems like a pretty big safety issue to me, and certainly not one you would ever think of when planning a flight!!!
Oh my goodness, what a nightmare! I’m glad your little one is ok.
Wow, I had no idea and had never thought of this. Thank you so much for drawing attention to this issue!
Wow, I never thought about this. Even with an 11 year old, she is always fidgeting so I will definitely make her aware of the danger as well. Thanks so much for bringing this up!
How scary – and definitely a hazard that needs to be corrected!
Good to know! And while I agree that it’s safest to leave young children buckled in to an approved restraint as much as possible while flying, it’s just not practical, especially on very long flights.
I was sat next to my 3 year old son on a British Airways A319 flight in June 2016, during the flight the armrest between us was up and he decided to put the armrest down which was fine by me, until it pinched a chunk of skin out of my side! It was unbelievably painful and left me with a weeping wound on my holiday so I couldn’t swim in the pool with my kids and was a bit of a spoiler. I was given a plaster by the flight attendant and a comment card so I could report it. I did so as soon as I got home from my holiday. Well 2 months later I received the following response from British Airways: “Unfortunately, due to the injury being caused by your son and not by a member of our staff, we are unable to offer any compensation towards your case. All our crew are trained to assist with common medical situations and have regular refresher courses. I’m happy our staff were able to help you with your injury”.
This misses the point completely and they refuse to accept it was caused by the design of the arm rest and not my 3 year old son who was so upset himself that I had been hurt. I wasn’t even seeking compensation when I sent the comment card back but now I am so upset by the response I feel I have to make a formal complaint. It’s completely unsympathetic and frankly insulting to my son. I also have an unsightly dark purple scar on my side. These armrests are so dangerous!
That’s awful, Bea. I hope you are ok!
With two hours left on our flight headed from Dubai to JFK airport the armrest that separated me from my four year old daughter fell down catching her little finger on her right hand in the mechanics of the uncovered metal. Upon releasing the finger it was clear he injury was very bad as there was a serious amount of blood all over the seat, seat belt, both her me and my husband who was sitting on the other side of her. I took a cloth and wrapped it tightly fleeing for the cabin to get help. The flight attendants were helpful in retrieving a first aid kit though once opened there wasn’t even a pair of scissors to cut gauze or tape to stop the bleeding. In fact, besides small sacks of sterilized water there wasn’t much else that could be done. At once point amidst the screaming and panic from my little girl, I was offered vodka to pour into the wound to disinfect which really scared me as to the amount of first aid training if any attendants actually had. Once the bleeding stopped we were assured that emirates was contacted and ground staff would be of assistance to us to receive medical help as son as we landed. Once we landed, no one said a word and we were exited off the plane in the regular line of passengers. No one was there to help my daughter and we had to proceed through costumes and eventually ended up on the curb of JFK with no further word from anyone. We quickly rushed back to Philadelphia ( our home town) to attend an urgent care where my daughter received 6 stitches and a tetanus shot. We later found out the finger had actually suffered an open fracture and my daughter was put in a cast! Not only was she traumatized by the experience all in all we spent four days of our vacation in and out of hospitals including 2 urgent cares and 2 appointments to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon!
Oh my goodness, Lisa–what a nightmare. I hope your daughter is ok and heals quickly. Have you had any word from Emirates since?