MORE than 4 million infants fly each year on United States airlines, but the Federal Aviation Agency has just ruled it will not require carriers to provide safety seats for them. The rule went into effect yesterday.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the Association of Flight Attendants, and the Air Transport Association had been recommending that the FAA require the safety seats be provided by all carriers for children under two.
The FAA did stipulate, however, that carriers must allow parents to bring safety seats onto flights - but at an extra fare, unless a free seat happens to be available. Until now, the practice had been that safety seats were usually allowed, and always at an extra fare.
If the parent chooses to forego the extra cost and hold the baby instead on the parent's lap, there is virtually no secure restraint.
Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R) of Iowa, an experienced pilot, is the author of a bill that would require the FAA to implement child restraints on aircraft. "I am a pilot and don't think a lot of people have an appreciation for the forces at play, that it is physically impossible to hold onto a child in a mid-flight crisis." He cites an instance in his own state, Iowa, in l989 when a United Airlines flight crash killed 112 persons, among them a 23 month old baby carried in his parents' arms. Authorities at the sc ene said the baby might have survived if it had been in a safety seat.
"It's one of the things to me that's contradictory in the FAA position," Rep. Lightfoot says. "Virtually everything that goes on a plane has to be tied down. ... It just seems like, if every state in the union has decided this is a smart thing to do when you're going 50 miles an hour, it's a smart thing to do when you're going 500 miles an hour." A baby in flight "ought to have the same [protections] as an adult ... as far as I'm concerned. They're basically a projectile, in that kind of situation."
In the face of professional demands for mandatory safety seats, why has the FAA remained so adamantly opposed? Lightfoot suggests, "Well, the FAA is in a rather unique quandary in that they're charged with aviation safety but at the same time they're supposed to promote aviation commerce. And this is not an untypical reaction when new ideas are proposed to the FAA."
While the FAA has figures on the four million children under two who fly each year, there are no figures available on the number of small children injured or killed under the present system. But that is not surprising when the way these most vulnerable of flyers are counted is explained: They are not counted as individual children unless they have a paid-for seats.
As Lightfoot explains, "If you go on a ride and your baby goes with you [on the lap], then that child is not counted as part of the package but is flying free. The airlines do that for their own protection. No one has ever compiled all the statistics together."
Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the FAA, says: "We're as interested as anyone else in protecting little children. We're concerned about the safety of infants, also, which is why we took the action [always permitting safety seats] we did.
"A person or family who has a child restraint system and wants to use it on airlines 9 times out of 10 have to pay for an extra airline seat. ... Airlines do not give away seats, and [since] the parents of infant children are more likely than not to be young adults, and do not have a great deal of money, the added cost of buying an airline seat could well force them into traveling by automobile rather than by air."
"Autos are statistically less safe than airlines. That being the case, other family members are exposed to a greater degree of danger than if they had gone by air. We're not charged with highway safety, but we do have a concern, if we were to adopt a regulation, what the effect would be on the safety of the people involved," Mr. Farrar says.
"About 50,000 people a year are killed in highway accidents and, for l991, 62 people were killed in airline accidents. The regulations we have adopted [say] bring it aboard, pay for another seat. The regulations we have adopted are aimed at airlines. If parents want to bring a child restraint system aboard, the airlines must let them do it. We have stated our position."
Lightfoot says, "The FAA is just a big old bureaucracy that is tough to move. They have said they don't want to move, and the way to move 'em is to get this bill passed."
The bill will be reintroduced when Congress convenes next year.