Sunday
May072017

How to Stop Airline Crews from Jeopardizing your Infant’s Safety

That’s right. More than 50% of flight attendants I have encountered on 45+ domestic and international flights I took with my infant between 2015 and 2017 were not familiar with “infants in seat” regulations and tried to apply “lap infant” or “child in seat” safety regulations to my infant, thus violating FAA regulations and more importantly, jeopardizing her safety.

Hi there, I should probably introduce myself first. My name is Petra and I fly a lot with my daughter Luna (proof). Before she turned 20 months old, she visited Europe six times. She has flown to Cancun, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Tampa, Yellowstone, Boston, and visited some of these multiple times. She has flown with most major US and EU airlines, as well as charter airlines. She just turned two, which marks the end of a series of traumatizing arguments and incidents I had to get involved in in order to ensure that she got the same level of safety as any other passenger on board. I have learned a ton, and being a scientist by trade, I feel obligated to write a postmortem summarizing my experience and findings. Therefore I put together this guide for parents that want to fly with their infants in the most safe way possible.

Wait, there is more than one kind of kid?

  • Lap infant a.k.a. lap baby is a baby under 2 years of age that does not occupy its own airplane seat. It rides on its parent’s lap. Lap babies on US based airlines aren’t allowed to use any child restraint system (CRS). Certain EU airlines require the use of a “loop belt” which attaches to parent’s lap belt but the loop belts have became illegal in the US (per FAA).
  • Infant in seat is a baby under 2 years of age for which a parent/guardian purchased a ticket and therefore does occupy its own airplane seat. Seated infants are required to ride in a FAA approved CRS (a car seat) that must be installed according to car seat manufacturer instructions (for children under 2, this is 100% rear facing).
  • Child in seat is a child over 2 years of age that occupies its own airplane seat and might optionally use a CRS such as FAA approved car seat or CARES harness. They can also just sit in the airplane seat itself just like any other adult, and can be restrained only using the lap belt that adults use. Children that reached their second birthday are prohibited to ride on their parents lap (per FAA regulations).

 

The problem -- crews jeopardize infant safety in the following ways

  • They tell parents to gate check the car seat. This is either because they do not have a window seat available for it (since FAA requires that car seats do not impede evacuation), or because they think that there isn’t enough space (width or length-wise) to install it on the assigned airplane seat.
  • They tell parents to hold their infant on the parent’s lap for the entire duration of the flight, even though the parent purchased a ticket for the infant and brought an FAA approved car seat. This happened just few days ago to a California family flying with Delta from Maui to LA, where the seat was given to an adult, because the crew decided that they can carry more people if they put children on laps, completely disregarding their safety and violating FAA regulation that prohibits children (2+ years old) on laps.
  • They allow parents to install the car seat but tell them to hold their seated infant in their lap for takeoff and landing (the most dangerous parts of the flight). This is probably because flight attendants have only been trained about “lap infant” safety and want to apply the same rules to “infants in seat”.
  • And lastly, the most common problem I encountered -- they tell parents of infants to turn a rear facing infant car seat (or convertible car seat) forward. This is probably because they have never seen a rear facing car seat installed on an airplane (remember, most parents choose to hold babies on laps to save money). I have also encountered concerns about the comfort of the passenger sitting in a previous row, mainly their ability to recline. This is the situation when the flight attendant declares that someone’s ability to recline is as important as your child’s safety, and you are left to argue against this logic. I lost this exact argument with KLM crew who first pulled out a terrorist card on my husband and then forced us to gate check the car seat.

 

What can happen during a crash or a turbulence if you are holding your baby in your lap?

Damage caused by unrestrained passengers during turbulence

  • During turbulence, your baby can hit the overhead bins or otherwise fly through the cabin. Keeping your baby in a Babybjorn or looping her in a that silly lap belt will not reliably keep her from flying up into the overhead bins. I did not find data on turbulence injuries in children but this report claims that turbulence has caused more serious injuries to passengers than any other class of accident. Between 1998 and 2013, there were 432 sigificant turbulence events. Annualy, there are about 27 events causing serious injury to 14 people and minor injury to 69 people. Turbulence rarely causes fatalities, however fatal events have occured in the past. The worst one happened near Mount Fuji in 1966 (124 fatalities). There were number of cases when babies were thrown up at overhead bins and landed away from the parents holding them. The most recent turbulence accident caused head unjuries to unrestrained babies on an Aeroflot flight to Bangkok just few days ago! This one was caused by sudden clear-air turbulence, where passengers did not get any warning to put on a restraint. There are around 750 cases of clear-air turbulence recorded in civil aviation every year. A five point restraint is crucial at preventing turbulence related injuries in children.
  • During a forward crash, your body keeps moving forward crushing the anything between your chest/head and the back of the seat in front of you. It sounds horrible that parents might crush their own babies but it is a reality. A 22 month old lap baby died in 1989 on United Airlines flight which 183 people were able to escape and a 6 month old lap baby died in 2012 on Perimeter Aviation flight in a runway overrun crash.
  • During a crash or a turbulence, your baby can hurt or kill other passengers -- unrestrained objects (bags, laptops, babies) can fly through a cabin at high speed hitting everything in its way.

 

What can happen during an accident if you attached the infant car seat forward facing

The direction of the car seat installation does not seem to matter during turbulence, because the motions are mainly up and down. This is why the car seat installation direction is most important during takeoff and landing, when the chances of a forward crash are the highest.

  • Findings show that before age two, none of the cartilaginous spaces in spinal column have completed ossification. Those pieces of cartilage have the ability to stretch up to two inches. Yet only 1/4″ stretch is enough to rupture the spinal column, resulting in paralysis or death (source). The average nine month old child’s head makes up 25% of her body weight; while an adult’s head only makes up 6% of her body weight (source). This difference in proportion only adds to the need to safeguard the spinal column in children.
  • Roughly 60% of all vehicle crashes are frontal and 20% are side impacts (source). A study which compared injury statistics for 15 years worth of crashes involving children under age 2 concluded that the odds of severe injury for forward-facing infants under 12 months of age were 1.79 times higher than for rear-facing infants; for children 12 to 23 months old, the odds were 5.32 times higher (source). Putting a child in a rear facing car seat protect its neck and the entire spine from breaking during a forward crash.
  • Spinal column isn’t the only part that can get injured if the car seat is turned forward. Since the car seat’s five point harness was set up for rear facing use in cars (the shoulder belts are in a slots at or *below* the child’s shoulders) your infant’s clavicle bones and/or shoulders can break during a crash. Imagine yourself in a car accident where your shoulder belt does not end above your shoulders but below your shoulders. As you fly forward, the shoulder belt will press down on your shoulders, possibly breaking them.

Infant crash test dummy video showing possible injuries to lap infants

 

But why does FAA still allow lap babies?

According to FAA, and I’m quoting, “the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap”. Yet, FAA still allows lap babies. Why is that?

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) keeps begging FAA to require that all passengers, including infants, are restrained during take off, landing, and turbulence. However, FAA chooses to allow lap babies for a number of reasons, including the popular “Diversion to Automobile” argument which is described as: “Any increase in airline costs will lead families to divert to more dangerous modes, resulting in more deaths and injuries“

At a first sight, it looks like FAA is concerned about infant safety and had to make a tough decision of picking the lesser evil. However, detailed analysis of road accident data shows that this argument does not hold.

Here is the NTSB analysis and response to FAA’s “Diversion to Automobile” argument. Notable excerpts from this analysis follow:

  • ...despite several Safety Board recommendations and ongoing lobbying efforts by concerned organizations including the Association of Flight Attendants and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the 1998 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by the FAA to require child restraints, there is still no requirement that children under 2 be protected by any form of restraint during flight….

  • ...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 laboratory and real-world accident data have shown that lap-held children cannot be adequately protected, the age of the passenger becomes arbitrary. Choosing to continue to exempt children under 2 from an adequate restraint requirement is then no different from granting a similar exemption for any other segment of the passenger population….

  • ...passengers are now required to securely stow all carry-on baggage during takeoff and landing because of the potential risk of injury to other passengers in the event of an unexpected hazard encounter. However, the same passengers are permitted to hold a child of equal size and weight in their lap.  When children under 2 are not required to be restrained for their own safety, the safety of their fellow passengers also becomes an issue....

  • ...there does not appear to be a clearly defined relationship between diversion from air travel and highway accidents or injury. In fact, despite the acknowledged difference in relative risk between road and commercial airline travel in the United States, and the largest diversion from air travel in U.S. history during recent years, road fatalities and injuries for children under 5 years old have continued to decrease…

As a parent, you need to understand that it is not everyone’s priority to keep your child safe. Airlines are for profit businesses and have different incentives than you. It is also noteworthy that even FAA is not only concerned about infant safety. In fact, their other arguments against NTSB’s safety recommendation were focused on the increased costs and lost revenue for airlines, and reduced ability to accommodate more non-infant passenger on the airplanes (as if infants were not worthy the seats).

 

The difference between US based and foreign based airlines… when it gets to infant safety

You do not need to read this if you do not plan to travel abroad.

Tl;dr:

  • All bets are off because you can not rely on FAA regulations to guarantee your ability to use a rear facing car seats on foreign airlines that are not registered with FAA.

Some notable differences:

  • Airlines registered in the UK prohibit the use of rear facing car seats. This is UK law. Even if the flight originates from the US, you will not be allowed to use rear facing car seat. Avoid UK based airlines if you fly with seated infant.
  • Airlines registered in Asia vary. Chinese airlines prohibit the use of car seats (of any kind) or any other kind of CRS. Avoid these airlines. Quantas allows car seats as well as CARES harness but have plenty of hoops to jump through. A coworker flying on Quantas had to argue about some kind of certification that their U.S. seat didn't have (according to Quantas crew).
  • Air New Zealand allows both and also the MERU chair for children with motor problems.
  • Airlines registered in other parts of EU follow regulations specific to the particular country and airline. If you plan to fly with a seated infant, you need to check with the airline before you purchase a ticket. Certain EU airlines such as Lufthansa or Turkish Airlines allow all FAA approved car seats, others only allow a limited list of brands they have tested internally (I’m talking about you Austrian Airlines!). Others might require that infants stay on your lap during takeoff and landing, even though you purchased a seat and brought a car seat for the child. And then there are those where whatever goes (Vueling) and you don’t get much attention from flight attendants even if you bring a donkey on board. And then there is KLM Airlines where I experienced the biggest car seat related fiasco of my life. Each EU airline has slightly different infant seat policy and varying levels of understanding/misunderstanding of these policies among flight attendants. That is why you need to be extra prepared if you fly with airlines that do not follow FAA regulations. This is how you prepare:

Luna in infant car seat (group 0+)Luna in convertible car seat (group 0+/1) 

Prior to flying checklist 

When booking your flight

  • Book a ticket for your infant by selecting “infant in seat” instead of “infant in lap”.
  • Try to reserve window seat for your infant. This is because the car seat can not impede possible evacuation (FAA regulation). If you fly with a US based airline which charges for seat reservations, you do not need to reserve the window seat and pay for it. FAA regulations pretty much guarantee that your infant will be given a window seat and you will sit right next to it, even if someone else purchased a seat assignment for that window seat. But you must be prepared to fight for your rights with uninformed crew (see below how). Avoid booking window seats in or near exit row and in bulkhead row.
  • To increase your chances of walking away from a survivable crash, pick seats in the very back of the airplane, where the G forces are smallest during a crash, as documented in this fantastic documentary.

Prior to boarding

  • Check the boarding pass. If it lists your infant as a lap infant, go back to the ticket counter or a gate and insist on a getting a corrected boarding pass with a unique seat number. If you bring a “lap infant” boarding pass on board, you might be denied from using the seat for your infant, as happened to the Schear family just few days ago.
  • Make sure your seat is right next to the infant’s seat.
  • If the boarding pass does not indicate that the child has a window seat, approach the check-in agent or a gate agent and ask them to assign a window seat for your infant. If they object, and the airline is registered with FAA, point them to the following FAA advisory circular which contains regulations they are required to obey. Point them to section 19 in the document. Do not wait until you board. Make sure your child has a window seat prior to boarding.

Bring the following with you on board

  • Most important document to print and bring to a US airline is this FAA advisory circular memo is with regulations about child restraints. All airlines registered with FAA are required to follow these regulations and luckily, this document is very clear about rear facing (aft facing) car seats and how to accommodate these. You can reference this memo when arguing with uninformed flight attendants. You are most likely going to be able to reason with them if you have the regulations printed with relevant sections highlighted for quick reference. If they keep pointing to their internal regulations, you can tell them that their internal regulations are in direct conflict with FAA regulations and you plan on reporting the airline to FAA which would subject the airline to investigation and possible fines as happened to Delta, American and United in 2012.
  • Print and bring the airline’s child seat policy (which should be published on the airline’s website) and bring with you on board. These policies usually mention that FAA approved child seats are allowed, and some even mention rear facing car seats. These websites sometimes also mention that that the car seat needs to be installed according to manufacturer instructions for the child’s age and height (which translates to rear facing!).
  • Bring your car seat manual booklet and know which page the airplane specific installation instructions are on. Remember, you need to be able to quickly open it on the right page when the flight attendant is asking you to turn the car seat forward. Show them that this car seat is FAA approved and its instructions clearly explain how to install it rear facing on an airplane. Manuals for convertible car seats also clearly state that the child must be at least two years of age before it can be installed forward facing.
  • DO NOT BRING BOOSTER SEATS ON BOARD. The purpose of booster cushions is to raise kid's upper body to allow them to use a car shoulder belt. Airplanes have lap belts. FAA prohibits the use of booster seats on board.

When boarding

  • Know where FAA label sticker is on your car seat. The label shoud say in red “This Restraint is Certified for Use in Motor Vehicles and Aircraft”. Don’t look for the FAA acronym. You won’t find it. Make sure to point it to the flight attendant at the gate and also the one that is serving your isle.
  • Ask whether there is any portion of the flight above any larger body of water. If so, ask if you can get infant life vest right now, or whether they hand it out during the ditching procedure (when airplane is heading down towards the water).
  • Inform the passenger that sits in front of the car seat that they will not be able to recline. If they have a problem with it, they can be asked to be reseated before takeoff. You can be extra nice and offer them a free drink. I have a workaround around inconveniencing the passenger in front of the car seat. I simply bring a convertible car seat which I install properly (rear facing) for takeoff and landing, and then turn it around and install it forward facing during the cruise portion of the flight. This has two advantages: #1 the person in front of the car seat can recline, and #2 the car seat itself can recline as well, allowing your baby to sleep better. I usually inform the person in front of the car seat that they might not recline during takeoff and landing but later they will be able to. And I ask them to be careful to not recline suddenly and pinch my baby’s legs.

 

Additional steps when flying with non-US based airlines

If your airline is not registered with FAA, I recommend you do the following in addition to steps above:

Contact the customer service in writing/email and ask them the following:

  1. Do you allow FAA approved car seats on board of your airplanes <airplane model> from <origin city> to <destination city>?
  2. Will you allow me to bring my <brand name> car seat on board if I purchase a ticket for my infant?
  3. Will I be allowed to install it rear facing direction (according to manufacturer instructions for infants under 2) on a forward facing airplane seat?
  4. Will the infant be allowed to sit in the car seat during take off and landing and anytime seatbelt sign is on? I do not intend to use a baby loop belt for takeoff and landing, and I do not intend to hold my baby while the seatbelt sign is on.
  5. Do I need to reserve the window seat ahead of time or will the gate staff make sure that my car seat does not impede evacuation? Will I need to pay extra for window seat assignment?

I have never received clear Yes/No responses to these questions so be prepared to have to go back and forth with the customer service and keep pushing until all questions are clearly answered. It might take you a couple of weeks to get all responses, so start early. Once you got satisfactory answers to your questions, you can purchase your tickets. Before flying, print and bring with you the entire conversation with customer service (underlining the important parts). You might need to show it to confused flight attendants. Sadly, I’m speaking from experience with Air Berlin, Austrian Airlines and Swiss Airlines.

 

Can someone fix this?

I would suggest few action items for airlines and FAA:

  • airline safety directors should modify the internal safety rules to be less ambiguous about rear facing car seats
  • airlines should retrain the crews about regulations relating to rear facing car seats
  • FAA should listen to NTSB recommendation and finally ban lap babies. This would force all airlines to require car seats for all babies and rear facing car seats would become normalized.

Lastly, I would like to express deep disappointment in how airline crews treat parents who bring in car seats for their infants. I have gotten into a number of heated arguments over rules that should be THEIR job to know and follow. For Christ’s sake, I’ve already mentioned that my husband had a terrorist card pulled on him while trying to keep our baby safe (he told to a flight attendant that he will “take KLM down on Twitter”)!

Just because most parents choose to save money and keep their unrestrained babies on laps, it doesn’t mean that the seated babies do not deserve the same level of safety as the rest of the restrained passengers.

My daughter just turned two, which means that I am going on a hiatus from arguing about rear facing car seats until another baby arrives. But this fight is not over for many parents who will need to keep fighting until all babies are allowed, or even better, required to fly in the appropriate child restraint systems (CRSs). Good luck to you all!

Saturday
Jun042016

How BookIt.com Censors Vacation Resort Customer Reviews

Sadly, this is my second consumer advocacy post in a row. We have recently came back from Cancun and I decided to share my experience with other users of BookIt.com website, through which I purchased our vacation. I have put a great deal of thought and time into putting together all the points (good and bad) to help future travelers choose the resort that meets their needs and expectations. To mu surprise, BookIt.com removed half of the negative points I raised in my review.

I understand that BookIt's interests do not align with consumer interests. BookIt is in the business of selling vacations, so it's not in their interest to have their customers post any negative reviews about resorts whose packages they sell.

While Yelp is being sued over their censorship of negative reviews, BookIt.com is freely censoring away!

Here is the entire original review which I submitted to BookIt

I have visited Finest in May 2016, with my mother and a one year old. We stayed at the Finest Club (building 5) swim up suite for five nights.
Let's start with the GOOD:
1) fantastic kid's facilities => but because we had a swim-up suite, we ended up using the toddler pool only once
2) great resort design => I love modernism!
3) great ice cream at the "Sweet Corner"
4) great food at the Tapas and Japanese restaurants
5) very friendly staff
6) fantastic swim up pools
7) great beach-side service for the Finest Club members
8) great White Party with great food
9) great night entertainment. Our baby loved to dance to all the music. We also loved the Mexican night.
10) the resort felt secure, as it was behind two sets of gates (the third gate was always open)
Now onto the BAD:
1) limited disabled/stroller access to the beach. Only one ramp available, and it requires you to walk through adults only part of the pool area.
2) although the Finest Club (bldg 5) is waterfront facing, we only saw a tiny piece of ocean from our room.
3) the food at the Italian place was small and poorly executed. The penne with pesto was small and swimming in plain olive oil (with a hint of pesto). After I asked for extra pesto, I received a big amount of olive oil with a smidge of pesto in it.
4) the lobster dish comprised of one half of one lobster tail. Boo.
5) the desserts look very pretty, are sweet, but lack flavor. I still can't understand how can someone make a fruit dessert that does not taste like fruit. Or a chocolate dessert that tastes like a hint of chocolate.
6) the sushi at the Market Kitchen is small (super thin slices of raw fish) and poorly executed
7) water in the swim-up pool was cold, until the very last day of our stay. Perhaps they change it once a week?
8) sugary watered down drinks
9) slow service => we requested early check-in and were told to wait for 1.5 hours. We were in the room about 2.5 hours later. I wish I have known this ahead of time, I would have taken bathing suits out of the luggage that stayed with the bell guys.
Now onto the UGLY:
1) Extremely offensive perfume in all common areas. This alone is reason enough to never come back. Bathrooms have the same smell, many times more concentrated. Upon the arrival, the room was scented as well (until I requested to not do it again). Perfumes have ingredients that are not controlled by authorities (such as FDA in the US). These ingredients are often toxic, causing all kinds of endocrine/hormone havoc, and are also linked to cancer. This is why perfumes are prohibited in infertility clinics. I felt very unhappy having a child in this environment. There was no way to avoid it. While waiting for check in at the Finest Club reception, the perfume was constantly shooting out from a device that looked similar to humidifier. When I asked them to turn it off (my child was sleeping on a sofa right next to it), I was told to move further away from it (and thus wake up the child).
2) One of the valet guys pointed out a big dent on the top of the rental car hood. I had a bit of a dispute with the front desk manager about whether the dent might have been caused by a basket ball (valet lot is right next to the basketball and tennis courts). After being shut down by the manager in person, I emailed their customer service and it took them six days to even acknowledge the receipt of my email. Luckily, the car rental company did not notice the dent, so I dropped my claim. But I really doubt that Finest would step up and do anything about it.
3) Room was too cold and could not be set to a warmer temperature. Our infant could not be inside in her summer clothes (exposed arms and legs). We had to change her every time we went in from the outside. The thermostat could be set to 72.6 F or something like that... but not higher. And it re-set every time we entered the room. So even when I turned of the A/C completely, it was back on and too cold by the time we came back to the room.
4) Mosquitoes everywhere. Immediately upon our arrival, the ceiling had multiple visible mosquitoes which I asked the front desk to send someone to exterminate. The exterminator did not speak English and only killed a handful of mosquitoes. That night my infant received 12 mosquito bites on her face.
5) Strange large bugs on the floor. These freaked my mom out, because they looked huge and looked like they might bite. Plus, our baby was crawling on the floor and could have picked them up. We took a couple of photos of these bugs and want to find out what they were.
CONCLUSION:
I am not coming back. I would expect a lot better food and better execution from a five star resort.
Petra

 

And here is the censored version posted on BookIt.com:

Why?

BookIt.com, why did you keep all 10 good comments but removed 7 out of 14 bad ones? You are putting words in my mouth while ommiting important information that can help future travelers with infants to choose a better resort. Needless to say, I am not going to use your services any more.
Friday
Feb192016

KLM Airlines Took a Safety Harness Away From an Infant and Pulled Out a Terrorist Card on Child’s Parent

tl;dr

On Dec 30 2015, as a result of the violation of KLM internal policy on child restraint systems, the safety of my child was jeopardized due to the crew’s prohibition of the use of an infant car seat. In addition to that, a flight attendant abused her position of power and pulled out a terrorist card to stop my husband from objecting against a car seat removal from the cabin.

Why bother with car seats?

Hey there, I'm Petra. I have a degree in mathematics and computer science and have spent the last decade working as a software engineer at Google. I am also a mother. We engineers really care about data. And we parents really care about our babies. So I collected some data about babies in airplanes.

According to NTSB, over 90% of aircraft accidents are survivable today in large part because of changes in the aircraft structure, including the seats. Lap children are much more vulnerable than properly restrained ones. Lap children have died in minor airplane crashes in the past.

  • a 22 month old lap baby died in 1989 on United Airlines flight which 183 people were able to escape
  • a 6 month old lap baby died in 2012 on Perimeter Aviation flight in a runway overrun crash
  • there were number of cases when babies were thrown up at overhead bins and landed away from the parents holding them
  • though FAA recommends that parents do bring restraint devices for their babies, they still do allow lap-held infants under age two. Why? Because had they required all infants to use car seats, many parents would choose to drive instead of flying, which is statistically way more dangerous than flying with unrestrained infants
  • though many European airlines hand out lap belts (seat belt extenders) to lap children, FAA prohibits lap belts. See section 3-3558 part G in this FAA document. I strongly recommend you also read section H and J to know your child's car seat rights on US based airlines.

A five point restraint is crucial at preventing turbulence related injuries in children. Keeping your baby in a Babybjorn or looping her in a that silly lap belt will not reliably keep her from flying up into the overhead bins. I did not find data on turbulence injuries in children but this report claims that between 2001 and 2011 there were 1,471 airplane accidents which resulted in 432 total fatalities. Out of these, turbulence was responsible for 71% of weather related ones and has caused more serious injuries to passengers than any other class of accident. To make this more real to you, this is what your dome can do to the panel above you. Ouch.

Check out this message from the NTSB Aviation Accident Investigator Nora Marshall and read more on NTSB website.

Why rearward?

I'm sure you had this same question the first time you have seen a a seat installed rearward facing. Well, there are many reasons to keep our babies facing rearward:

  • Because babies have frail little spines. Findings show that before age two, none of the cartilaginous spaces have completed ossification. Those pieces of cartilage have the ability to stretch up to two inches. Yet only 1/4″ stretch is enough to rupture the spinal column, resulting in paralysis or death (source).
  • Because babies have ridiculously heavy heads. The average nine month old child’s head makes up 25% of her body weight; while an adult’s head only makes up 6% of her body weight (source). This difference in proportion only adds to the need to safeguard the spinal column in children.
  • Because frontal crashes are more probable. Roughly 60% of all vehicle crashes are frontal and 20% are side impacts (source).
  • Because data doesn't lie. A study which compared injury statistics for 15 years worth of crashes involving children under age 2 concluded that the odds of severe injury for forward-facing infants under 12 months of age were 1.79 times higher than for rear-facing infants; for children 12 to 23 months old, the odds were 5.32 times higher (source). 

Infant crash test dummy video showing possible injuries to lap infants

Luckily, most airlines are aware of the physical limitations of babies and gladly accept babies in rearward facing car seats. Airline child seat policies usually defer to car seat manufacturer seat installation instructions (as is the case with KLM's policy).

Infant car seat 101

If you are a parent, you can safely skip over this part. :)

There are many kinds of car seats but infants can only ride in two kinds:

  • infant car seats (always rearward facing)
  • convertible car seats (rearward until certain height/weight/age, and then forward)

Infant car seats are the little buckets you see the tiniest babies in. They usually have a handle and let you carry your baby like a hand bag. It's impossible to secure these things to a vehicle in a forward direction.

Airline staff is a lot more familiar with the convertible car seats, which are usually used forward facing for toddlers, but you can use them for infants if you install them rearward facing. Here is a popular travel convertible car seat.

Though many convertible car seats do accept newborns, there aren't any convertible car seats that can hold the smallest preemies. These little babies can only ride in infant car seats. No matter what car seat is used for the infant, a baby should ride rearward facing until at least the age of two. Some countries such as Sweden keep their kids rearward facing until the age of 4 or until the child completely outgrows the height or weight limit of rearward installation and has to be turned around.

And BTW, did you know that only five percent of parents actually know how to properly secure their child in a car seat?

Photo left: A two month old baby Luna successfully restrained on Austrian Airlines OS 130, economy classPhoto right: Baby Luna traveling on Lufthansa's Boeing 747-8 from SFO to FRA, economy class

What if an airplane crew flat out denies your child its right to using her safety restraint?

Alright, we are getting into the meat of this article. We are going to talk about what happened to my baby on that unfortunate KLM flight.

In 2011, KLM has already been involved in a fiasco with baby on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam detailed in this post. KLM's initial response involving the KLM president, detailed here, was to explicitly ban rearward facing car seats and thus make it completely impossible to fly with an infant under 20 pounds inside a car seat because there is simply no car seat that would allow an infant under 20 pounds to ride forward facing. And then there was a final, a more positive response from KLM, where they actually changed their infant car seat policy for the better (detailed here). KLM now allows all car and airplane approved child car seats to be attached to a seat on KLM aircraft, regardless of whether they are front or rear facing. Fast forward four years, another KLM crew was not aware of their infant car seat policy and denied a safer way of travel to yet another infant -- my baby Luna.

I believe infants and children deserve an equivalent level of safety as adults on board aircraft. That is why I always purchase a ticket for my child and bring her approved car seat.

Baby Luna has flown on 11 flights already, always in her car seat. She has flown with Lufthansa, Austrian, JetBlue, United, Air France and Virgin America. She even flew on another KLM flight 1838 from Vienna to Amsterdam. But not on KLM flight 605 from Amsterdam to San Francisco.

Note that Luna travels in her rear facing FAA approved car seat Nuna Pipa, which is, ironically, designed by the Dutch. But that didn’t stop KLM crew on flight 605 from Amsterdam to San Francisco on Dec 30 2015 from denying her safety even though I purchased a child ticket (a seat on an airplane) for her.

Photo left: Baby Luna securely fastened on Austrian Airlines flight 130 from FRA to VIE, economy classPhoto right: Luna securely fastened on Lufthansa flight 422 from FRA to BOS, Boeing 747-400, economy class

On Dec 30 2015, we boarded the Airbus 330-200 to San Francisco and successfully installed her car seat into her assigned airplane seat. We sat on 34 D and 34 E, and the baby sat on 34 F. We then asked a flight attendant (an older blonde lady wearing glasses with dark rectangle frames) to bring us an infant life jacket. She brought the life jacket, pointed at the car seat, and said that it has to go because it prevents the seat in front of it from reclining. We objected and explained that this is the only way to install this car seat, and that it meets KLM guidelines as specified on KLM website. She asked us to turned it around (forward facing) and we told her that it's impossible to fasten this particular car seat in forward direction. She then left and sent a second, a more junior flight attendant (a very shy, non aggressive, thin, dark haired lady) to put a tag on it and take it away from us. We refused again and showed her the KLM website with infant car seat policy loaded on our smartphone. We said that the car seat fits within the space permitted, and is installed according to manufacturer’s instructions. We thanked her for her concern and said that we have educated ourselves and know for a fact that we are not breaking any rules. We then asked the lady sitting in front of the car seat (at seat 33F) whether she is ok with not being able to recline and got her permission.

Photo left: FAA label on Luna's car seat Nuna PipaPhoto right: Instructions for installation of Luna's car seat

A third, more senior attendant joined in aggressively to tell us to either check in the seat or be deplaned immediately. She refused to read the KLM policy which we wanted to show her on the smartphone. We told her that the person sitting in front of the car seat was ok with her backrest not reclining but that didn’t make any difference to her. She insisted on us removing the car seat anyways. Husband then mentioned this havebabywilltravel.com article and said that a similar KLM infant car seat fiasco has already happened in the past and that they should try to avoid creating another fiasco. He explained again that they are not following their very own guidelines laid out on their website, and that if they really force this he is going to take them down on Twitter and in the press even worse than what played out on the havebabywilltravel.com blog. At this point, this flight attendant abused her position of power and threatened my husband that she has the power to take that as a terrorist threat and have him removed from the plane by the authorities. The gentleman sitting at 34B is our witness. It seemed pretty clear to us and everyone around that there was never even remotely a threat of violence but a clear threat of an online press and social media roasting for their car seat flip-flopping that was worse that the last round. All the while pointing at a smartphone with a website up -- a geeky mid-thirties couple with a smartphone and an infant in a car seat, not exactly cause for fear and law enforcement intervention. :)

If the crew really thought we were an actual threat, we would have never been allowed to stay on board of the plane. Flight attendant's use of the terrorist card was a pure abuse of her power to make us stop arguing with her.

The car seat was removed and we were left holding our baby on our laps. At this point I started having the strongest heart palpitations I have ever experienced. I told my husband to stop fuming and pay attention to me, and possibly call a doctor. This only shows how stressful this was to me. It's hard to explain. Perhaps some of you mothers might understand. I only have one child. I am one of those crunchy moms that takes safety extremely seriously. After watching this sled test video and seing what a lap infant does during a crash, I really make sure to buckle her using a rearward facing car seat with a five point harness in any vehicle (car or airplane) she rides in.

My child’s life is the most important thing to me, more important than my own life. And KLM crew’s lack of knowledge of their own company policy combined with flight attendant arrogance has jeopardized the safety of my child and increased the risk of her getting killed or injured, like those 21 passengers injured flying on Air Canada just hours after we flew with KLM. And there was nothing I could do.

About 30 minutes into the flight I asked a fourth attendant, a friendly younger lady that served our isle, for a name of the first attendant that started this whole fiasco. A purser, who was the fifth person we talked to, was sent to talk to me instead. She told me that the first attendant refused to come talk to me or give me her name for security reasons. The Purser was very friendly but just as uninformed as the others. We talked for a while and I asked her to give me the official reason for car seat removal, which I wrote down in front of her. She explained (and I'm quoting) that "internal regulations say that it must be forward facing and the recline can't be impeded". She went on to contradict what she just said and told me that rearward car seats can still be accepted in classes with larger leg room, where they do not impede recline. She told me that she can't put me into the class with larger leg room because the flight is full and we didn't pay for the premium seating and went on recommending that I should reserve a bassinet in the future.

There seem to be some holes in purser safety training at KLM because the purser made some strange claims:

  1. First, the purser claimed that bassinets are safe, which is incorrect. She explained that a lid/cover that goes over the bassinet keeps the child safe, even during impact. Child's spine would not be supported correctly during a sideways impact (bassinets are installed sideways). Plus, there aren't five point harnesses inside the bassinets.
  2. The purser also claimed that the belt loop will keep my baby safe during impact. I told her about the above mentioned sled test and about how the infant gets crushed under the body of the person holding it. She said that baby harnessed in the belt loop needs to be on the side (not in the front) of the person holding the baby. I do not know how this is possible for a passenger that isn't sitting by the isle. I also do not believe that a child will stay on the side of the adult's torso during the crash. The child's belt loop is attached to the adult's seatbelt like a hinge, so child will swing towards the front of the adult's chest during impact. This is simple physics. Also, in paragraph 15a in this FAA Advisory Document, FAA clearly describes the results of infant crash test dummy tests with loop belts as follows: "Belly Belts:  These devices attach the child to the accompanying adult. The child is restrained by an abdominal belt attached to the adult’s seatbelt. During dynamic testing, the forward flailing of the adult and the child resulted in severe body impacts against the forward seat. The child Anthropomorphic Test Dummy (ATD) moved forward to impact the forward row seat back, followed by the adult ATD torso striking the child ATD. Then, the adult ATD torso continued to move forward after contact with the child ATD, crushing the child ATD against the seat back."

I told the purser that KLM website doesn’t say anything about forward facing only or reclines, but she stated that the website is incorrect and their internal regulations will be followed instead. She said that the ground staff should have taken my car seat away from me and that they didn’t do their job correctly (which is again, incorrect).

In total we have interracted with five crew members, two of which behaved aggressively (the first and the third one), the rest were polite.

Photo left: Baby Luna being held by her dad while in air on Lufthansa Airbus 321 from VIE to FRA, after the seatbelt sign was turned off Photo right: Baby Luna waiting for security screening at Boston airport

Where KLM messed up

  • We were not offered to be reseated into bulkhead row (and there was only one child in the bulkhead). Even if reseating was not possible, we could have at least been allowed to use the rearwards car seat during take off and landing, which were the two most dangerous moments during the flight and during which the person in front of it would definitely have their seat upright. I have purchased the child ticket so that Luna can be properly restrained during take off and landing.
  • We were not listened to even though we were holding a proof -- their own infant car seat policy loaded on a smartphone
  • A flight attendant abused her power and pulled out a terrorist card on a parent trying to keep their infant safe

 

I suggest KLM makes the following improvements

  1. KLM, please change your policy to explicitly state that it is OK to impede recline when rear facing car seat is installed. For some reason, your flight crew thinks that recline (comfort) is more important than safety of the most vulnerable people on board.
  2. KLM, please change your policy to explicitly state that the car seat can be rearward facing if manufacturer instructions say so. It's clear that your crew interprets the policy incorrectly. It needs to be more explicit to avoid misinterpretation.
  3. Train your crew:
    1. Inform the crew about these changes. At least five flight attendants plus a captain did not know your company policy or misinterpreted it.
    2. Train your employees to treat customers with respect. When we were exiting the airplane, an attendant standing by the exit leaned towards the captain and said (not even whispered, but said outloud) to him something in Dutch while both were looking at us exiting the airplane. It was obvious she was telling him that we were "those two". I then said “yes, that’s us”, and walked off the plane.
    3. Coach your employees to not abuse their power and be very careful about threatening law enforcement action, especially when the crew has started the communication out on an aggressive footing.
  4. Have your crew wear some kind of name tags. They do not need to show their real names. It's enough to show some kind of employee ID or anything that clients can use to reference the employees when talking to customer service. It's pretty lame that I had to describe the physical attributes of the people I have talked to.

 

How did this affect us?

  • First and foremost, we ended up flying with insufficiently restrained child, thus jeopardizing her safety in case of survivable crash or turbulence.
  • We might have lost warranty on our $300 car seat because it was checked and thus might be considered “crashed” by the manufacturer. Because I didn’t see how it was handled or whether pieces of other luggage slammed into it during take off or landing, it might be actually crashed and unsafe for my child and our future children. Our car manufacturer warranty states that warranty does not cover "Casualties and carelessness including those caused by both unsuitable parts and by both air or freight transportation"
  • Other minor "first world problem" style inconveniences include having to hold cranky baby for 11.5 hours, having problems getting her to nap in our arms, being unable to sleep ourselves, being unable to easily eat because there was a baby in our lap, etc.
  • I was in a great deal of emotional distress for a good couple of hours after the flight, after being treated poorly by the KLM staff.
  • I'm yet to find out whether we will receive any refund for the seat we did not use. Luna ended up being a lap infant – a non-rev (non revenue generating) passenger. => Feb 18 update: We did receive a refund for the child ticket on that particular segment in our itinerary.
  • If this incident happened on a US based airline, FAA would be performing an investigation and take an appropriate enforcement action (as in this case with American Airlines). However, because KLM is not governed by FAA regulations, KLM has to perform its own internal investigation. My husband is talking to KLM via Twitter right now and we are waiting for investigation to complete. => Feb 18 update: KLM completed investigation and we were informed about a refund as well as the change in the KLM child restraint policy. See "UPDATE" below.

Photo left: Baby Luna fastened on a Virgin America flight from SFO to BOS, economy class. Darkened car seat allows baby to sleep much longer and I recommend all parents try this fantastic technique.Photo right: Luna securely fastened on Lufthansa Airbus A321 from Vienna to Frankfurt, economy class

What can a parent do?

Every parent considering to fly with an infant car seat should do the following:

  1. know your rights
  2. bring evidence of your rights on board
  3. be ready to fight for your infant's safety

I recommend you also read these tips for flying safely with children when the airline doesn't know the rules.

 

Additional things parents should know about flying with infants

  • If you are going to Europe, you should know that UK law prohibits the use of infant car seats on any airlines based from UK. This has nothing to do with airline policies. Therefore avoid flying with an infant in a car seat on Virgin Atlantic or British Airways. Fly to London on United Airlines or such instead.
  • I strongly recommend you fly Lufthansa which has excellent customer service and knowleagable staff. They allow all FAA approved car seats on board, though it's always good to print this document and bring it with you. I have met only one Lufthansa flight attendant that told me that I should use a lap belt (which by the way is banned in the US) for take off and landing but she has consulted with a more knowleagable coworker and backed off.
  • If you are flying on a US based airline (America, United, Delta, etc), you should know that all US based airlines are required to comply with FAA regulations. You should print this 2015 FAA advisory document and bring it to the cabin with you. If the crew is giving you hard time, ask them to read section 10f. No matter what, you need to be prepared to defend your child's right. If you are not prepared, you might end up like the passengers in last year's United, Delta and American Airlines fiasco described in this Forbes article.
  • If you are taking an EU based airline (such as KLM, Austrian, etc), things are harder for you. Each European airline has different policies and you would need to be prepared to literally fight for your child's safety while there is no guarantee that the crew will listen to what you have to say.
  • If you are bringing in a small stroller, know that not every airport ground staff will be willing to return your stroller at the gate. Paris CDG airport is notorious for this.
  • Strollers, no matter how small, are not permitted on board of any US based airlines (per FAA regulations) but Air France lets you take them on board, if they are under certain size. So you can bring your MountainBuggy Nano, Qbit, or Babyzen Yoyo with you! Because there was some extra space in the overhead bins on our flight from Paris to Vienna, we could bring our comparatively huge Stokke Scoot on board.

 

*** UPDATE -- Feb 18, 2016 *** 

The gentleman handling our case is KLM's Online Reputation Manager Jochem van Drimmelen. Soon after my husband direct messaged KLM via Twitter, we have received prompt response from Jochem's team and continued getting frequent updates from them during the whole investigation process. Yay to that! After initial gathering of some basic facts such as reservation code and our car seat model name, Jochem personally conducted a phone call with both my husband and I. Being the child safety research junkie I am, I was pleasantly surprised by how genuinely interested Jochem was in the topic of child safety on board. We spent a good amount of time brainstorming how KLM's infant safety policy can be improved. We continued the discussion via Twitter and Jochem updated me about his plans to change their car seat policy. To give you an idea of how professional Jochem is, here is a peek into one of the Twitter messages from him.

I have to give a big shoutout to Jochem for exceeding our expectations and being such a great person to handle our case!

Am I satisfied with the outcome of the investigation? Yes and no.

  • Yes, we did receive an apology for "getting informed otherwise"
  • Yes, we did receive a refund for the child ticket we purchased
  • But no, my husband did not receive an apology for having a terrorist card pulled out on him
  • And no, KLM still doesn't allow babies to be properly restrained in their rearward facing infant car seats during the entire flight.

Upcoming changes to KLM's policy?

I mentioned earlier that Jochem informed me about his recommendation to change KLM's car seat policy. In my opinion, the change is both good and bad. Jochem's team added this additional bullet point to the existing policy:

  • "During take-off and landing child seats may be secured in a rear facing position. At cruising altitude they must be placed forward facing to allow recline of the seat in front."

Alright, let's start with the good. The good thing about this new rule is that there will not be much room for misinterpretation of the KLM's infant car seat policy. There still might be some crew members that choose to ignore their own website (like the crew we had to deal with), but at least the website will explicitly say that taking off and landing can be rearward facing. The new rule would protect infants during the most dangerous parts of the flight. Thank you Jochem! This new rule might save baby's life one day.

And now let's talk about the bad. KLM will start explicitly prohibiting infants in infant car seats to be properly restrained during the cruise portion of the flightThe proposed new policy forces parents to turn the infant car seat forward during the cruise portion of the flight. Because the infant car seat can not possibly get attached to a seat if facing forward, this means that KLM's new policy now jeopardizes safety of infants during the entire cruise portion of the flight. Not only the baby's life will be jeopardized, the passengers sitting in the vicinity of unrestrained car seat might get seriously injured when that massive object hits them during turbulence. I would not want to sit next to such hazard. Passengers are advised to be buckled at all times, especially if they plan to take a nap. So why wouldn't this apply to infants? An unrestrained sleeping passenger can get seriously injured like these folks on a recent Air Canada flight. What would happen to a baby in a car seat that isn't attached to an airplane seat? The baby is out of luck unless all stars align. And by stars aligning I mean the following holding true:

  • the parent isn't sleeping
  • and the turbulence is announced ahead of time
  • and the person sitting in front of the car seat is not reclined or is willing to quickly put their seat up
  • and the parent has enough time to quickly turn the seat rearward and secure it to the airplane seat
  • and the parent has enough time to secure themselves after they secure the infant car seat
  • and both parent and the child get secured before the strong/dangerous turbulence begins

As you can imagine, this is not a good situation to be in. Even if you are really quick, it can take you more than a minute to buckle the baby in the car seat, turn around the car seat, install it, and then buckle yourself. Sadly, what this means is that KLM chose to keep babies safe during takeoff and landing, but they still do value passenger comfort over infant safety during the flight. And this disappoints me and ensures that my baby will not fly with KLM at least until she reaches two years of age and can be secured in forward facing car seat. 

Addendum -- about Austrian Airlines

Wait, isn't this article about KLM? Yes it is. But I thought you might find this relevant too. You might have noticed above two photos of our car seat installed on Austrian flight OS 130 from Frankfurt to Vienna on July 7 2015. I would like to mention that Austrian crew also gave me hard time but I ended up talking some sense into them and ended up keeping the baby safe:

  1. Austrian attendants were pulling out the impeded recline card, which is again their own interpretation of vague internal policy.
  2. Austrian has this strange policy where they only allow a limited list of approved car seats to be used during take off and landing. However, they let you install any car seat that fits but you can not keep your child in it for takeoff and landing -- the two most dangerous moments during the flight. The exact wording on Austrian website says: "You may bring different models of child restraint devices. Due to safety reasons the device may not be used during take-off and landing and when the fasten seat belt sign is switched on."

I wondered what "safety reasons" they had in mind since this rule puts infants into unsafe situation during takeoff and landing. So I reached out to Austrian asking to clarify what they meant by "for safety reasons" and to give me their statement on whether it's ok to impede the recline of the seat in front when a rearward facing car seat is installed. They refused to provide me with such statement. Their response from July 13 2015:

Dear Mrs Cross!
 
I´m really sorry, but we do not have a special document for cases like yours.
The flight attendents also only know the list with the certified seats and need to refuse all other seats from using during take off and landing.
 
The seats which are allowed for using, are proofed by our technical department and therefore ok for a confirmation.
We are instruced to work according the puplished list and need to refuse all others.
 
Sorry that this is the only information we can forward you!
 
Yours sincerely,
 
AUSTRIAN AIRLINES
Rainer Nutz
Special Cases Desk
 
Fax: +43 (0)5 1766 51043

 

The ironic part is that some of the car seats explicitly listed on Austrian list (for example Chicco Autofix) are longer than my car seat (Nuna Pipa), so the car seat(s) explicitly approved by Austrian definitely impede the recline of the seat in front of it. However, the company still refuses to issue a statement or change their website to explicitly state that rearfacing car seats are allowed to impede recline. This means that Austrian flight attendants can continue making their own interpretation of the vague rules and value passenger comfort (reclining) over passenger safety.


Further reading

If the topic of infant safety on board of an aircraft interests you, you might like some of these articles:

 

 

Friday
Dec252015

Announcing Luna

It's been a while since I posted something. The year 2015 has been like no other. It was the best year of our life. Luna (a.k.a. The Nugget) joined our family and she is beautiful. I have enjoyed every moment of my maternity leave with her and don't want to accept that it's over. I have learned so much and grew a lot from this experience. I have also realized that I am a total type A personality that loves to do extensive research into any topic related to babies. If you have any questions about anything (baby gear, diapering, parenting methods, safety), shoot me a note and I might write a post on that topic.


Phot creds: Marcie Lynn Photography 

Wednesday
Apr082015

I'm a human farmer!

I am trying to dabble in this human farming. My first attempt it to grow a single human. The first human I'm growing is a female specimen. The codename for this project is "Project Micropetiatko". Launch date unknown, but suspected to fall into May timeframe.

Photo credits: Hawaii beach photos by LucieXYZ Photography, San Francisco Botanical Gardens photos by Marcie Lynn Photography