Airlines have many difficult and complicated safety regulations to comply with. I know. I worked for the airlines for decades, served as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and have continued to teach and consult on aviation safety issues. The FAA’s kid seat rule is definitely not a regulation that is either difficult to understand or difficult to comply with. And yet, time and again passengers come forward to complain of flight attendants, gate agents, pilots and airlines themselves being unable or unwilling to comply with rules meant to ensure the safety of their most vulnerable passengers. Here are just a couple of the stories I’ve highlighted in the past, here and here.
This latest report comes from Kelly Duvall, the mother of two young children, an 18 month old daughter and a 3 1/2 year old son, who flew on American Airlines Flight 319 from Phoenix to Chicago on August 17. According to Ms. Duvall, she had planned to use aviation-approved car seats for both her children and had lugged them, along with their luggage, to the airport so that her children could fly safely. After all, as she knew, the FAA’s own website specifically states that the safest place for a child is in an approved child restraint system and not on your lap.
Unfortunately, American Airlines personnel were not as well-informed as Ms. Duvall. She was forced by an American Airlines gate agent to check one of her car seats, claiming that two car seats were prohibited and only one of her children was permitted to be in a seat with a car seat. When Ms. Duvall pushed back on this, the agent erroneously claimed that American Airlines policy on its website prohibited two car seats. Ms. Duvall was forced to hold her daughter on her lap even though she had purchased a seat for her child and had brought her own approved child restraint system. FAA rules clearly state that no airline may “prohibit a child, if requested by the child’s parent…., from occupying a child restraint system furnished by the child’s parent… provided the child holds a ticket for an approved seat.”
According to Ms. Duvall’s written complaint to American Airlines: When we arrived at the airport I made my way through security and to our gate, with my two children, our luggage, and their two car seats. It was no small feat. When we got to the gate (a full two hours early) I approached the gate agent and was told I would be called back later to get our tickets. About ten minutes before boarding was to begin, I hadn’t been called to I went to the desk with my children in tow to get our new tickets, and a different gate agent gave me our tickets. I asked if I could board early for family boarding and he crossly told me, “We don’t offer family boarding.” When I mentioned I had read on the website that families can board early, he said “Only families that need extra time.” I explained again that I was traveling alone with two small children and had two car seats that I needed to get onto the plane, in addition to all our luggage. He simply said, “You can’t bring two car seats.” When I explained that I had specifically purchased a ticket for each of my children to be seated in their car seats, he was quite rude and insisted I couldn’t bring a seat on for both of them, but would have to check one through. I expressed how disappointed and frustrated I was that my children were not going to be safe on the flight, but he continued to be quite short and rude with me, as I was standing with both of my children, now feeling overwhelmed, saddened, scared, and frustrated. I also explained that nowhere on the American Airlines website had I seen anything about having to put a car seat in the window seat, or not being able to put more than one seat in a row, and he responded with a blank stare and said, “Well that’s the rule.”
While American Airlines customer service apologized to Ms. Duvall, they have repeatedly failed to respond to her question as to whether American policy prohibits two kid seats. I have also tried to get this information from American and while a spokesperson responded that he was researching the matter, I have to date not received a response as to whether American’s policy prohibits two car seats. The FAA did respond to my inquiry and stated that there was no regulatory prohibition on a passenger bringing two car seats for their children.
Ms. Duvall has filed complaints with both the FAA and DOT. Hopefully, these agencies will step up and force the airlines to be accountable for how they treat young children on such a significant safety issue. It’s really up to the FAA and the US Department of Transportation to force the airlines to take children’s safety seriously. The FAA has told me it is investigating United Airlines for forcing a child over the age of two to fly as a lap child and that the matter is still under investigation. Of course, it may be that the only way to ensure that young children have the same safety protections as older passengers is to mandate separate seats and seat belts for every passenger, regardless of age.