The Real FAA Car Seat Rules…Not the Delta Version

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I’m in the middle right now of dealing with either totally gnarly food poisoning or the plague. It’s so bad it would be almost comical if it weren’t so miserable and causing me to be a serious party pooper for Josh’s birthday. Anyway, I’m not sure if it is my actual food poisoning/plague that has me feeling sick to my stomach, or the new round of airline passengers getting the boot. Since I’m running at least a half day behind right now (thanks plague!), I bet many of you have already heard the newest airline vs. passenger story where a family was removed from a Delta flight coming back from Maui.


If you aren’t yet familiar, the short version is that the family of five – mom, dad, two young sons, and an 18 year old son were finishing up a trip to Hawaii and expecting to fly Delta back to the mainland. The older 18 year old son took an earlier flight, but they didn’t cancel his ticket on the original flight the remaining four family members were taking. Their plan was that they would strap both young children into their car seats, and instead of having their one year old fly as a lap baby, he would fly in his older brother’s unused seat.

Those who fly frequently know that this isn’t exactly how things work when a passenger doesn’t show up, but it isn’t unreasonable to see where this family’s thinking was coming from. They had purchased a seat that wasn’t going to be used by their oldest son, so they wanted to use it for their younger son to be safer and more comfortable on the redeye flight home in a car seat. If the flight hadn’t been full/oversold their plan very well may have worked, but that wasn’t the case, so Delta assigned the 18 year old’s unused seat to another passenger when he ultimately didn’t show up for boarding.

Things went downhill from there with the cell phones coming out to record and the parents being threatened with jail and potentially losing their kids if they didn’t follow instructions. I will say that everyone stayed pretty calm in the discussions, so that was good to see. Ultimately when the father eventually agreed that they would just hold the child as originally booked, the Delta employee on-board said it was too late for that and had them all leave the plane. At least they weren’t forcibly dragged off the plane, so there is progress.

There were a lot of sort of crazy things about this situation, but one thing that I want to be sure is clear to anyone who has seen the video is that the Delta employee who said you can’t use car seats if your child is two or older is 100% wrong. Not only can you use a car seat for children aged two and up, but for toddlers it really is the best choice in many situations. That said, this part of this story actually has happened to me when I was told a few years ago I had to remove my then three year old from her car seat on a United flight or risk escalating things to a point where I’m pretty sure we would have been kicked off. We needed to get home that night so I caved even though I knew I was in the right – I don’t think I would do the same now.

The Real FAA Car Seat Rules

The real truth about car seats according to the FAA, is that a child of any age (up to 18 years old) may use a properly labeled, appropriate for the child’s weight, car seat on board an aircraft. It doesn’t matter if they are under two years old, over two years old, or whatever. What does matter is that they have a seat to put their carseat in, however the seat they are in doesn’t actually have to be one purchased in their name. The FAA is clear that a seat doesn’t have to be purchased in that child’s name in order to have them sit in it in a car seat, but instead they instruct parents to ask airlines if they can use an empty seat and to book at off-peak times to increase the likelihood of there being an open seat available if they don’t plan to purchase a seat. Of course this is in reference to the under-two crowd who could fly as lap babies, as children two and over have to have their own seat.

Additional FAA Car Seat Guidelines

  • You can use your car seat as long as it is government approved and has “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” printed on it.
  • Buying a ticket for your child is the only way to guarantee that you will be able to use a CRS.
  • A CRS should be placed in a window seat so it will not block the escape path in an emergency. Do not place a CRS in an exit row.
  • If you do not buy a ticket for your child, ask if your airline will allow you to use an empty seat.
  • A CRS must be installed in a forward-facing aircraft seat,a CRS may not fit in some oblique seats in certain premium class cabins
  • Most young children who use a CRS weigh 40 lbs. or less. However, there are some children with physical challenges who weigh more than 40 lbs. and need the support and security of a CRS or device so they can travel safely on an airplane.
  • Airlines must allow a child who is under the age of 18 to use an approved CRS that is properly labeled, appropriate for the child’s weight, and as long as the child is properly secured in the CRS

The recent Delta incident was unfortunate and it really boiled down to, in my opinion, a family not totally understanding how airline tickets work. If the airline staff had spent more time explaining that part of the situation and less time making up car seat rules that were contrary to both FAA rules and what the parents had experienced in previous flights, I think it is much more likely they would have agreed to simply hold their one year old before it was “past that chance” and they were forced to deplane.

If you are interested in more tips when flying with car seats you can check out my previous linked post. Fingers crossed that at least some good comes from this rapid fire succession of airline vs. passenger viral videos and that everyone becomes a little more knowledgable about actual airlines and FAA rules and procedures.

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.



  1. I may sound like a broken record but I keep saying “too bad Greyhound isn’t a bit faster”. It is disgraceful the way we are being treated by US airlines. Since they gave airline personnel the power to make anyone’s lives miserable you will always find a FA or a gate agent that will use their power at their own discretion. I really hope all these cases wake people up in DC that may decide to change the way airlines are operating in terms of customer service. They have all the power to do whatever they want while passengers have to shut up otherwise they are beaten, kicked of the plane, etc….

    • It really is an interesting industry in some ways. I know I have put up with treatment on a plane that I wouldn’t have in most other settings. I know the airline employees are on tight schedules with lots of pressure, but the outcome of all of this is sometimes….well, crummy. If you want to throw rules at people and expect passengers to be airline rule experts, then at least be sure the airline employees also know all the rules they are quoting.

    • Why can’t passengers just listen to direction? You can’t just put your child in a seat you didn’t pay for. If their son took an earlier flight, then his reservation was moved and that seat is open for stand-bys. No airline employee openly sets out to make it harder on passengers. Passengers now-a-days have a sense of entitlement. Remember that FAs are their FOR YOUR SAFETY. If you want to know why you can’t sit in a seat you didn’t buy, just research PanAm flight 103. The passenger had a seat but didn’t show up–and instead his luggage exploded the plane. FAA regulations are in place to save lives. Stop feeling like you passengers are entitled to everything. Flying isn’t a cruise ship, its a form of public transportation.

      • “You can’t just put your child in a seat you didn’t pay for.”

        Yes, in fact you can, if that seat is vacant. That is exactly what the FAA regulation M.P. cites above, says. And other parents and I do it all the time. There was _no reason_ for Delta to remove that family from that flight, except to continue to send the message to members of the public not to speak up for themselves.

        Why can’t airline employees know the rules, when that is their job, and not arbitrarily use the authority they have been given, in part by the FAA and in part by the flying public’s acquiescence, to get their way?

        IMHO, the UA David Dao incident sparked an appropriate pushback against the airlines’ abuses of power.

  2. This BS has my wife and I seriously considering never flying with our children again. Every person on that crew (ground and flight) should’ve been terminated immediately, and the rest of Delta’s staff retrained in how to handle such situations. It’s good that Delta at least tried to make it right, but I think we air travelers are sick of being assaulted by TSA and airline staff. Driving isn’t as safe, but at least then we don’t deal with ignorant bullies and violation of our natural rights. Oh, and it doesn’t help that they’re trying to fit more seats on the aircraft by taking away leg room. All of this makes flying more miserable than it’s worth.

    • I think certainly families should look at their driving radius….for many reasons. I’m not driving to my upcoming trips to Costa Rica, Caribbean, and Boston, but if it was something you can drive in a day or so….maybe.

    • No, you’re just angry. Of the hundreds of thousands of passengers that fly every day, you only hear of one or two incidents. Those incidents are caused by passengers who neither read nor understand the terms of their contract (i.e. ticket), and who believe that they are entitled to everything. You are probably one of those people.

      • For those who have traveled their entire lives, it is clear that the industry has degraded in “customer service” to a point where they don’t treat people with dignity and respect anymore.

      • They were entitled to that seat as they paid for it. If you pay for something aren’t you entitled to use it?

  3. Thank you for another good write up and reasonable analysis of the situation.

    While the passengers are ultimately at fault here, it’s clear that the airline industry as a whole needs to work on de-escalation training for customer facing staff both in the air and on the ground.

    • Absolutely…and I also think it is unreasonable to expect passengers to be airline rules pros – especially when it is clear that airline staff isn’t even clear on seemingly common issues.

  4. Watching the video, there was a lot of misunderstanding and confusion with the father, and also the airline employee.

    First of all….the father was trying to circumvent the rules. He said that. He sent his older son home on an earlier flight (presumably buying him another ticket) with the intention of his infant son using that seat. You just can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way. The person whose name is on the ticket has to occupy the seat. Otherwise they are a “no-show” and their seat is given to away. (the guy mentioned people changing seats…which has nothing to do with this scenario)

    2nd. The airline agent was not explaining the “car seat policy” to him correctly. What she was trying to say was that the youngest child was booked as an “infant in arms” which means he is not entitled to use a seat. 1 year olds can’t sit in a seat without a car seat, and you can’t bring a car seat on a plane in the hopes of putting it in an empty seat. You have to purchase a seat for the child in the car seat. She was doing a terrible job of explaining that. I am a former airline employee so I knew what she was trying to say, but an average passenger probably would not.
    He got lucky on his flight out that there happened to be empty seats and he got the car seat on board and used the seat and nobody cared. But if there were standby passengers he would have been asked to remove the car seat and this whole scenario would have likely happened at that point.

    Having said all that, I think since everyone was calm and it was obvious that there was a big communication gap, they should have just let him hold the child on his lap and filled the empty seat with the other passenger. He still would have been mad about having “paid for the seat” but hopefully he would have been rational enough to take that up with Delta later.

    But at the same time I feel the entitlement attitude in this country is getting out of hand. All the publicity these passenger removals are getting is just going to cause more bad behaviour and make it almost impossible for flight crews to do their jobs. Things are only going downhill.

    • Largely agree, but I don’t think she was just doing a poor job explaining the car seat policy, I think she was just totally confused on it herself. Saying someone over two can’t be in a car seat just took the conversation down a wrong trail…as did the earlier person (security?) talking about going to jail and losing their kids. The whole system seems to need a reset. I do think that this current trend of viral video passengers will likely lead to more similar encounters which isn’t a great trend, but on the other hand, it is highlighting something I know is very real in terms of unacceptable treatment of passengers on aircraft. Not every airline employee is like that of course, most aren’t, but there are more than a handful that truly do make up rules, bully passengers under the guise of security or similar, and if this helps curb that then fantastic. That said, I know that airline staff put up with some nut job passengers too. It’s a tough gig.

    • “and you can’t bring a car seat on a plane in the hopes of putting it in an empty seat. You have to purchase a seat for the child in the car seat.”

      Well, that’s not exactly accurate. You don’t have to buy a seat, but its the only assurance you can use the car seat. If you don’t buy a seat and you want to try to get your infant’s car seat on, what you do is bring the car seat to the gate and discuss with the staff there if there is space for the seat. If there isn’t, you gate check it. Pretty simple formula really. My family did this on many late night flights that we knew would not be full. Occasionally we’d be wrong, but if that only happens 1 out of 10 times, its worth it to try.

      I’d also stop well short of blaming the passenger’s behavior on an entitlement attitude. He wasn’t clear on the rules and they weren’t explained to him properly. If things were explained correctly from the get go, this likely doesn’t happen. Also, given the recent issues, I don’t blame anyone for whipping out a cellphone if a dispute arrises. Furthermore, its only a good thing if passengers getting physically assaulted ends up in the pubic eye. In fact, its rather concerning that you think this is a net negative.

      • I agree. He was quite calm, under the circumstances, with no tone of entitlement. He merely planned out his stragedy because the previous flight over to Hawaii pretty much gave him permission by allowing him to use the empty seat on that flight.

        • So here is what happens next time if being allowed to occupy a seat “pretty much gave him permission’, they no longer let you occupy a seat unless you paid for it, so no more letting people move around, no more permissive use of more than one seat. Empty seats stay empty to avoid anyone thinking that they can ever use those seats. This is how wasteful policies get made. The man was calm so I do not understand why he was removed. BUT he was told the policy repeatedly and he kept just insisting the same thing over and over “I paid for that seat”. Well Sir, you did pay for it, but you did not property have it reassigned to a different person so it is no longer yours.

          • There are lots of people assisting their customers *as they go* through the “complex” process. I’m confident that this was not the first time he expressed his logistics to personnel. They should have assisted him in transferring the name on the ticket long before he got on the plane.

  5. Laura speaks the truth. Entitlement, byzantine rules, crowded airplanes, over-worked crews, tone deaf TSA, cell phone cameras, social media, plaintiff’s bar, and alcohol, a toxic mix.

  6. Although Delta has a major hub in our city, and Southwest does not, we fly Southwest whenever possible! And sometimes even when we have to have a layover with two young kids!

    They train their staff and they are always so pleasant and helpful. We <3 Southwest!

    • But they still aren’t going to let someone occupy a seat with a ticket which doesn’t have their name on it. Tickets are not transferable. Frankly, if this guy had just presented his son’s boarding pass for this flight the issue would probably never have arisen. Once his son’s boarding passed wasn’t scanned at the gate, he was a no-show and Delta had the right to assign that seat to a standby.

    • Jason, I am not sure which part of that regulation you are referencing but it allows for children under the age of 2 to sit on a lap. Everyone over the age of 2 has to have a belt available to them. The FAA states clearly on their site the SAFEST place for a child, no age specified, is in a carseat approved for vehicle and aircraft use. Delta’s own website also recommends using an approved carseat. Let’s think logically for a moment. Do you think an average adult can securely hold a child of any age in an emergency? That’s like saying a parent’s arm is a good substatute for a seat belt in the front seat of a vehicle. We all know that is not the case.

  7. They should have put the ticket in the kids name, their fault. The Delta agent should have explained ticket purchase rules and why this was happening.

    • Or just assisted in changing the name on the ticket that he purchased. Why piss off your customer over a niggle?

  8. As someone who has flown more than most people I know but nothing like what Gary fly’s. I have found people are clueless about the fact that there are rules for both passengers and FA’s. Both need to know the rules before they fly and follow them. 90% of these incidents would not occur and then would not escalate and cause all of us more headaches.

    Both parties here are equally at fault for this incident.

    The unfortunate part of this whole incident is Delta will payout a settlement and it will cost us all more in airline miles and cash to fly now, companies do not absorb costs they pass it on to the consumers.

  9. If their son took an earlier flight, did their son buy a different ticket? Did he pay for the earlier flight AND the flight he didnt take? If you don’t check into your flight, your seat is forfitted. Thats how it works. You don’t get an “extra seat” just because its empty. There are always stand bys, etc. that are given the seats where people fail to show up to their flight. Passengers can’t “claim” these seats just because their family member didn’t show up. Not how it works. If they wanted a seat for their one year old with a car seat then they should have purchased that ticket. 9/11 and hijacked Pan Am flights is why we can’t have people flying in seats they didn’t pay for. The family is 100% at fault.

  10. It is really simple, purchase a seat for your child to sit in a car seat. It is not fair to your child, it’s not safe and it’s unfair to the other passengers because it is impossible to have any child sit the entire flight in someone’s lap. There is no judgment here. Yes, it is expensive but it is unfair to the other passengers who figured out how to fly to not listen to a child scream the entire flight.

    The parent was incorrect in how plane tickets work. The flight attendant was wildly incorrect in threatening child services. She should be terminated. No one should ever make a threat like that unless it is appropriately based. This was not that situation.

    The airlines are now using the police to do their job and this is not appropriate. Plus, it wastes our tax payer dollars.

    My kids are now older and we always purchased a seat to ensure they could use the car seat. When my children were younger, Combi stroller had a model that could fold and be placed in the overhead compartment. It was I think FAA rated. But, every so often, we would have a flight attendant who appeared as if their sole mission was to torture parents of children. On one flight, I was told that my stroller could not be taken onboard. Per Parents magazine, I flew with the FAA rules. (They could now easily be downloaded onto the Dropbox app.) The flight attendant looked like a deer in headlights when I whipped them out to show her what the FAA had to say about my stroller. She apparently was quoting them and had never read them. I had as a lawyer. The stroller was permitted on board and the airline who I later contacted, apologized with I believe, points.

    The airlines need to regularly test their personnel and should secret shop their flights. Flight attendants cannot terrorize passengers but at the same time, parents need to pay for seats for their children. Fair is fair.

    • “The flight attendant looked like a deer in headlights when I whipped them out to show her what the FAA had to say about my stroller. She apparently was quoting them and had never read them. I had as a lawyer. ”

      HAHA! Non-lawyers totally hate us all for it, but yes, this is when putting the expensive degree to use is really satisfying. Can’t do it too often though. Only when appropriate.

      • “The flight attendant was wildly incorrect in threatening child services. She should be terminated. No one should ever make a threat like that unless it is appropriately based.”

        Completely agree. I don’t even see an appropriate basis, given what the law on “interference with a flight crew” and relevant state law, actually says. The F/A isn’t a cop or an AUSA.

        “Bob, Bob, I hope your firings go really nicely.”

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