KLM Airlines Took a Safety Harness Away From an Infant and Pulled Out a Terrorist Card on Child’s Parent
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.
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).
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?
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 explocitly 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- Train your crew:
- Inform the crew about these changes. At least five flight attendants plus a captain did not know your company policy or misinterpreted it.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What can a parent do?
Every parent considering to fly with an infant car seat should do the following:
- know your rights
- bring evidence of your rights on board
- 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 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 flight. The 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:
- Austrian attendants were pulling out the impeded recline card, which is again their own interpretation of vague internal policy.
- 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:
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.
If the topic of infant safety on board of an aircraft interests you, you might like some of these articles:
- The Safety Hazard on Your Lap (NYTimes)
- Why You Should Never Fly With a Child on Your Lap (USA Today)
- Severly Bumpy Flights Boost Lab Baby Concerns (Today)
- New Study Focused on In-Flight Risk to Infants (Wall Street Journal)
- Lap Babies on Airplane - A Warning All Parents Must See (Car Seat Blog)