Airline Forces Mom to Fly With Car Seat in Unsafe Position

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We flew on United out of Denver this past weekend with little kids and car seats, and the airport was an absolute zoo on one of first busy summer travel weekends. Thankfully, once we had the car seat and kids situated on the plane, the rest of the journey was smooth sailing for us. The same cannot be said for another mom doing virtually the same thing, at the same place, at the same time.

My two year old locked, loaded, and ready for take-off

United Express Forces Mom to Fly With Car Seat in Unsafe Position

Mom, Cassie Hutchins-Brosas, was flying from Denver on a SkyWest flight, operating as United Express, with her 8-month-old daughter who weighs around 18 pounds. She purchased a seat for her daughter in first class, and did just as the car seat manufacturer recommends for a child of that size by installing the car seat in a rear-facing position. She had done the same thing without incident on a flight two days earlier.

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However, just when her daughter had fallen asleep in her rear-facing car seat while the plane was still at the gate, a United gate agent, seemingly unaware of the FAA rule that car seats can be installed forward or rear facing, reportedly insisted that she turn the child around to be forward facing. Per the FAA posted rules, the only forward facing requirement is that the airline seat itself face forward, not the car seat. In fact, the FAA website explicitly states that:

CRS must be installed in a forward-facing aircraft seat, in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. This includes placing the CRS in the appropriate forward- or aft-facing direction as indicated on the label for the size of the child.

This traveling mom was well informed on the relevant FAA policy, and reportedly quoted it to the airline employees who continued to insist she turn the car seat around. As has happened to me in a similar situation, things got to the point that she felt she had to either comply or get off the airplane, which she was told wasn’t moving until her baby’s car seat faced forwards.

According to this mom’s account on Facebook, the car seat would not properly install in a forward facing position. Shortly after take-off, the mom says they hit a patch of turbulence that necessitated holding her baby’s head back, as it would get thrown forward when they hit bumpy air. Again, flying out of Denver myself this week, I 100% trust that the air was unstable as our flight to Denver almost diverted to Colorado Springs for a similar reason.

At some point during the flight, the mom was reportedly told by a flight attendant who did some deeper digging that the car seat is indeed supposed to be rear facing, but that it is the gate agents have the final say on where a baby sits on the aircraft. She was permitted to turn the child around to rear facing before landing, and United has now reportedly apologized and refunded the child’s ticket.

No excuse for airlines to not follow basic FAA policies

This mom knew the FAA rules, purchased a ticket for her baby, brought the car seat onboard, installed it correctly, and was still met with dangerous and incorrect information. Excuse me while I dust off this soapbox, but in 2018 with similar story after similar story getting national attention, this is 100% unacceptable. There is no excuse for frontline airline staff to not know basic information regarding flying with infants. Or rather, there is no excuse for them to not obtain the correct information before forcing a parent to do something that is not only outside of airline policy, but outside of FAA policy.

Perhaps it is time for airlines to have a dedicated family travel desk that all employees can reach by phone at a moment’s notice to verify rules and procedures when there is a question about car seats, family seating, nursing, pumping, or anything related that impacts traveling families. Maybe that already exists and simply isn’t being used effectively, but one would think a well-informed airline family travel point person could solve these sort of disputes before incorrect and dangerous information is passed on to customers.

Do not follow directions to put your own child’s safety at risk

Based on what has been shared, this mom did everything right and still ended up in a bad situation. My only additional piece of advice to anyone in a similar situation in the future is to not comply with rules that you know are both incorrect and potentially dangerous. I’ve relented on a similar issue before in the interest of getting home as quickly as possible, but would not do so again.

The airline can force you off the plane, but they cannot force you to do something dangerous for your child. Be polite, but hold your ground and wait for the right information to eventually come out, as it ultimately will.

That said, there are indeed some seats on the aircraft where you cannot use a car seat such as in a seat that would block access to the aisle, in the exit row and rows bordering the exit row, in rear-facing seats, in a seat where it does not physically fit, in some premium cabin seat designs, and in some seats with airbags built into the seatbelt. However, in all of those cases, the airline should work with you to find another seat onboard that will support the use of the car seat, provided that you purchased a ticket for your child.

United told me this morning that the SkyWest employee was mistaken in asking the customer to turn the car seat to a forward facing position and they have been in touch with her to apologize. They are reviewing the incident with SkyWest staff to learn more about what happened.

Has an airline ever asked you to do something with a car seat that you knew to be incorrect or even dangerous?

 

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Comments

  1. And United takes the lead with ridiculously horrendous customer service again. I certainly hope they’ve refunded the money for both seats.

  2. Thank you for publicizing story like this. It only gets better for all of us if the rules are known and enforced. I’ve had similar experience on multiple airlines and they should know better.

  3. yes, Avianca refused to let me install my car seat rearfacing last November. I was traveling by myself with a 1 year old in the seat and a 10 month old lap child. I tried showing them what I had printed out but I was so stressed and juggling two babies and they called someone to come on the plane to talk to me but I just turned the seat around forward facing because I couldn’t handle it, I was in tears. Just thinking about it now upsets me. Traveling with babies can be super stressful! 3 flights since then, we are now experts practically.

  4. Thank you for the reminder! I have a quick question for international flights–do you also bring a car seat for children above 2 years old and must have their own seat? And is a car seat required for a child age 2-4 or different airlines dictate those rules? Thanks!

    • I don’t think any airline mandates you bring a car seat for a child of any age. The big 3 US carriers definitely don’t.

  5. Re: airbag seatbelts, Alaska on an ex-Virgin A320 operated flight was able to give me a seatbelt extension that disables the airbag, so that we could (on that full flight) hold our son as a lap infant. I assume that would also work to use his car seat on a flight if you found yourself in an airbag seatbelt seat. It was row 3 on that 320.

    I am pretty sure AS does not allow lap infants in row 6 on the 737’s.

  6. We were just on a United flight from Chicago to LAX where 1 flight attendant had an issue with how a FAA certified car seat was installed. We were delayed an hour until they got a gate manager on who said the car seat was installed correctly and the flight attendant was wrong!!! Infuriating for the parent and those of us who missed our connecting flight bc of incompetence. I fly United a ton, but they have such cultural problems with their workforce (uninformed, in-trained, power tripping) I’m not sure they can turn it around.

  7. OK, let’s step back a second here.

    Why do babies sit rear facing in cars, and why should babies be in a car seat seat on airplanes? The answer to these questions are totally different. In a car you are worried about a rapid high-g force deceleration that would throw the child’s head forward if s/he were sitting forward, hence the rear facing. In a plane, you are basically worried about a child getting thrown around in turbulence. Can be any direction and the G forces aren’t very high.

    So I don’t see any great reason rear vs front facing is relevant for air travel. Generally I’ve put our baby rear facing so I can see him, but when our daughter was in a regular car seat I put her front facing (even though she still rear faced in the car) to avoid blocking the seat in front and so she could see the IFE.

    • some car seats are designed only to be rear facing, like the infant buckets, the seat belt only hooks onto it when it’s rear facing. also the seat is at a different angle when it’s rear facing which is designed for infants who can’t yet hold up their head.

  8. If the gate agent was the one with the issue then it’s frustrating that he/she would only have seen any ‘incorrectly installed’ seats at the front of the plane and not the rear.

    In this case I fail to see how another crew member wasn’t able to step in a clarify the rule

  9. Thanks for the post and totally agree the safety of all children should be first and foremost! This is a sorta a side subject related to a dilemma of mine when traveling w/ my soon 2 yr old who on the next time he flies will occupy his own seat – whether to lug a carseat all the way onto the plane vs this FAA approved device called CARES Harness which attaches to the back of the seat and serves as an extension of the plane seatbelt. I am leaning towards giving CARES a try, especially now that Silvercar offers free Peg Perego carseats so one less bulky item to carry when flying for us. What is your take on CARES?

    • My son turns 2 soon as well, and I am facing the same question. I would much prefer not to lug a car seat around. Perhaps a good Mommy points post?

      • If you are bringing a car seat anyways, don’t check it in. Use it on the plane. Helps keeep a squirmy toddler still.

  10. A big issue here is also how empowered airline employees feel. Instead of being humble and searching for a good solution it’s always their way or the highway.

  11. Not related to car seats, but we recently flew with our 2 year old with his own ticket, and a flight attendant told us that he had to sit in his own seat buckled up, even though there was no way the seat belt was doing anything due to his size. They told us that since we purchased a seat, he had to sit in it, and that was FAA rules. We were surprised because we had never heard that one, even when he was small enough to be a lap child and we purchased a seat for additional space for him. We thought that it was unsafe to put him in his seat, at his size, vs. hold him in our lap, but the flight attendant insisted.

  12. I had this exact situation occur with United Express. Forced me to install my daughter’s car seat forward-facing. I relented because the flight attendant told me it was “illegal”. She said loudly as she left, “these people think they know better than us”. I contacted United after the fact and they said the FA acted correctly (they quoted a rule that addressed devices like the CARES, not car seats). I pointed out their error, and they still insisted that the FA was fully compliant with FAA rules. So I filed a complaint with the FAA. The FAA contacted me and United, and quickly sent a nice letter stating United was absolutely wrong to disobey the installation instructions of a car seat, and corrective action had been taken. United called back a little after that, apologized for the “misunderstanding”, and refunded the miles I used for the seat. I still need to frame that FAA letter. At least here they admitted their mistakes prior to landing, instead of digging in their heels.

  13. Traveling with my kids I’ve had two experience that could have gone that way without me flat out refusing until the FA backed down.

    1. On a major carrier, after we were airborne the head FA tried to tell me the car seat had to be refacing when the car seat was designed to be rear for my daughter’s weight. I quoted them the policy and even after they pulled up their iPad and read it, they tried to insist forward face. At some point after I continued to hold my ground they ended it with an agree to disagree and left us alone. The part that drives me nuts is I know I’m right, but if I was wrong, why did you let the plane take off …

    2. More recently on a small business shuttle airline (so don’t expect they get a lot of kids), they first got all concerned there were two “lap infants” (1 & 3 yrs old) in consecutive rows despite the fact they both had their own tickets and seats. After we got past that and were 15 mins from landing the FA tried to ask me to take my 3-year-old out of her forward-facing car seat and just use the regular seat belt. I politely asked how a seat belt would be safer than a 5-point harness and don’t remember what they even tried to say. But when they still asked me to remove my daughter from her car seat I strongly refused and they did not know what to say to me. Once again, we are airborne and there was no one on that plane that would have been physically able to force this papa bear to do that. So, they walked away and we landed safely and on our return flight with a different crew there were zero issues.

    I left out airline names because I don’t think this is an airline specific problem, but this is a training and knowledge issue across the industry.

  14. I recently flew Lufthansa, Korean, Turkish, and Asiana in a mixture of business and coach. I had no issue with the airlines and my 2yo’s car seat. I also had the CARES harness which I used for the second half of the trip only because I hated lugging the car seat on the plane.

    Flight attendants looked over the CARES harness with curiosity and some brought over supervisors go take a look but once they saw the big FAA Approved wording on it there was no argument.

  15. We’ve flown on both Delta and JetBlue with car seats for our toddlers and haven’t had any issues, although they were only forward-facing. We used a CARES harness once last summer for my then-4-year-old and didn’t love it. It was a bit awkward to install since it has to go under the tray table of the seat behind her, and it shifted and loosened a lot as she moved during the flight.

    This summer we’re going to California and will be renting a car there, so we’re bringing a car seat for our 5-year-old and she will just sit in it on the plane. We got a Cosco Finale that converts from a 5pt harness to a booster. It’s $40 and only weighs 11lbs, so comes highly recommended as a travel seat. My 9-year-old uses a Bubble Bum inflatable booster for travel, it packs into its own little bag when deflated so is easy to throw into your carry on.

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