Airline Gets Car Seat Rules Wrong Again, You Get Them Right!

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It is the start of the Thanksgiving travel week when lots of families will hit the airports and the skies to go visit family, escape family, and hopefully make lots of fun memories in the process. One memory that no one wants to make is an unpleasant exchange with airline staff about a car seat. I have a few of those unfortunate memories myself, and when I fly solo with both of my children this weekend (for the first time, I think?), I can share that my #1 concern has to do with car seat logistics. I’m not 100% sure yet how I will manage the bags, the stroller, the car seat, and oh yeah, the children. Not only is getting all of that through security and the airport a challenge, but then simply getting everything and everyone down the jetbridge, on-board, locked, and loaded will be a sight to see.

They should really have parent helpers you can rent by the hour in major airports!


Anyway, I am sure we won’t be the slickest show in town, but I presume it will all work out for us as one way or another as I have done similar dog and pony shows many times, my children have flown quite a bit themselves, and they are thankfully now almost 8 and 2.5 years old, so no longer tiny babies or squarely in the “hardest age to travel” zone.

Flying with car seat

However, if I was flying solo with a 3 year old and 18 month old plus two car seats, my stress level would undoubtably be several ticks higher. That is a really tough assignment, but it is what a mom was doing a few months ago on an American Airlines flight from Portland to Chicago. She had done everything right, bought seats for each child, had somehow managed to get both children and both car seats to the gate, and then the problems started just before boarding.

You can read a really good account of her experience here, but the gist of it was that she was told by the American gate agent that she could only use one car seat and had to hold the other child as a lap infant.

For those curious, the FAA rules state that no airline may prohibit a child, if requested by the child’s parent, guardian, or designated attendant, from occupying a child restraint system furnished by the child’s parent, guardian, or designated attendant if they have their own seat. American’s own website also doesn’t say anything about a limit of one car seat per traveling family.

It does state that If your infant will travel in his or her own seat, you must buy a ticket and bring a safety seat approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It also states that the safety seat can’t be used in an exit row or in the rows on either side of an exit row.


From experience, I can tell you that car seats are typically to be installed at window seats in a one aisle aircraft in order to aid in an orderly emergency evacuation, and while the United website outlines more details about where car seats are to be installed, the American website doesn’t. I assume that this family’s problem came from the reality that one of the car seats would have to not be in the window position since there was only one traveling adult in the party, though to my knowledge this isn’t an FAA rule, but rather a common airline policy/procedure.

I know that airlines have an insanely long list of safety rules and regulations to follow, but like the author of the article linked above, I really fail to comprehend why car seats (and breastfeeding, for that matter) continue to be such difficult issues to master. It really seems that a one-sheet list of car seat rules and guidelines that is available to both passengers and staff should be able to answer pretty much all questions and situations.

If there is a one car seat per adult airline rule then say that on the website (though it would seem to go against the FAA’s rules on the topic). For this family, the older child could have probably utilized a CARES Harness and the 18-month-old could have been been strapped in their car seat, and both would have been pretty secure. My kids have never been as comfortable in a CARES Harness as in a car seat, but it would probably have been a better situation then holding one child throughout the flight.

The mom reportedly states in her complaint that after the gate agent told her she could only use one car seat she was “standing with both of my children, now feeling overwhelmed, saddened, scared, and frustrated” and that is a terrible feeling and one that is, in my mind, 100% the fault of the airline in this case.

If you are traveling this week with a car seat (or two), first know that my thoughts are with you, it is one of the big PITA parts of family travel. Second, do your homework and know what the FAA and your individual airline has to say on the topic. Typically, this means you need to have a seat for your child (unless an adjacent seat just ends of being available), that you have a forward-facing seat without a seatbelt airbag, that you aren’t in an exit row or the rows just before or after an exit row, and that you place the car seat in a window seat of a single-aisle aircraft, you have more options on a double aisle aircrat.

Should you be flying solo and require two car seats, I would be sure to get to the gate early and make sure you and the gate agent are on the same page. I haven’t seen any published limits, but the arrangement of the car seats is likely to be the challenge on the plane. If one of your kids could use a CARES Harness, that might be a decent alternative to having to manage two car seats.

CARES Harness

I’d love to hear your flying with a car seat travel tips (here are mine!), especially if you have managed multiple car seats!

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  1. […] Airline Gets Car Seat Rules Wrong Again, You Get Them Right! – I’m not a fan of lugging a car seat on to a plane, but some parents insist on it.  Traveling with kids is hard enough without carrying an awkward, heavy car seat into a metal tube.  And don’t get me started how hard it is when the kids fall asleep and you have to carry them, bags, toys, etc. off the plane… adding a car seat doesn’t make sense to me. […]


  1. Have to agree with AA on this one. Car seats must occupy the window seat for safety evacuation reasons. Traveling as a solo adult with two car seats means you can only sit next to one of the babies. Not fair to the other baby or the passengers who’d have to sit next to the baby. I chalk this up to selfishness on the part of the parent.

    • I am under the same understanding, that car seats have to be in window seats, so you can’t have two unless you have two adults, however, I would chalk it up to ignorance of the rules rather than selfishness and put some (not the majority because there was no way for AA to know in advance that she was going to want to use two car seats) of the blame on the airlines for not providing a copy of the rules anywhere.

    • Mitch Cumstein, your points are all most valid. Unfortunately, you won’t get much agreement on this site and will probably be accused of being hateful for your response. On plus for a parent(s), all the kiddies and their car seats allow for early boarding, even ahead of first class passengers.

    • I don’t see anything the parent did as selfish at all. They bought seats for their kids and brought car seats to make them safe and comfortable. Nothing on AA or the FAA’s website points to that being a problem. Now, logistically, there is a challenge with two car seats, but it seems that AA picked a very poor solution to an avoidable problem that was absolutely not the fault of the parent.

  2. Good luck with your trip, Summer! We took our first family flight with our one-year-old last month, and all the tips I’d picked up on your blog were so helpful. We loved the Cosco car seat, it was nice and light and great for hauling through the airport. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

  3. Couldn’t the three year old sit in a regular seat with a belt (do it with my three year old all the time) and then have the 18 month old in the car seat? You could gate check the other car seat….or am I missing something?

    • I think that could work for sure. When things start going downhill in a stressful pre-boarding situation sometimes logic goes out the window, but that seems doable to me.

  4. My thoughts are with this family. Traveling with two small kids is no small feat. I understand that the airline may have a preference for car seats adjacent to the window for valid reasons, but lack of a widely available, written policy is a poor way to handle these situations. Make the information clear, up front, and readily available so that there are fewer problems at the gate.

    Wondering if anyone has used a CARES harness? We got one last year for our toddler but the flight attendant said it could *only* be used in the last row because it obstructs the use of the monitor and tray table for the seat behind. We ended up just putting it away and using the provided lap belt.

  5. We used a CARES harness many, many times – my daughter preferred it to a car seat! My husband would get on early and put it on her seat. When the people behind arrived, he would let them know what it was. I don’t recall it obstructing a monitor – lots of the flights were on Southwest! It does not impact the tray table either, as the strap is thin and, if I recall correctly, sits above the tray table. We also carried it with the instruction manual which said it was FAA approved. Only one flight attendant ever asked about it – she tried saying that FAA approval was irrelevant, what mattered was airline approval. But when we said we had been on that airline (I think United?) with it previously, she talked to her supervisor and all was OK. I think the real issue was that she had never seen one before…..
    If the flight attendant made a fuss though, I would have just put it away too……
    Happy travels!

  6. @A life has been so much easier since we got our CARES harness. Nothing to lug to the lounge & then the plane. Much easier to just check the car seat or just get one in the rental car. (I can go on a tangent about UBER not having a carseat option in some of the cities we’ve visited, but..)

    My wife & I have only one 3y/o at this point, but her first flight was at 10 months. Before 1y/o CARES is not an option; you need the seat.

  7. I’ve used a cares harness and had no problems, you do want to get on early and so you can make sure the tray and raised and lower in the seat behind you but it’s how you install the harness. I

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