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FAQ: Traveling with Car Seats on Airplanes

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You're all set to go on your holiday trip: flights booked, bags packed, stroller set to go. But what about your car seat? Should you bring it on the plane? Will it fit in the seat? How do you properly install it anyway? We spoke with "The Car Seat Lady," Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician in the NICU at Columbia University Children's Hospital in New York and certified instructor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's car seat course, for her tips on flying with a car seat.

Should I bring my car seat on a flight?

Yes! "This is the safest approach," said Dr. Baer. Not only could you run into turbulence on the flight (or—we hate to think about it—a survivable crash), but what would your baby ride in on the way to and from the airport, and when getting around your destination? Rental or borrowed car seats are not always reliable; they could be outdated and unsafe, plus there's a great likelihood of incorrect installation, since the seat is unfamiliar to the parents. Dr. Baer's bottom line: "There should be consistency in the safety message: Any time a child is in a moving vehicle, they should be strapped into a properly installed car seat."

Major airlines are usually accommodating to carrying on car seats, and will allow them in addition to your one bag and one personal item. If the cost of purchasing an additional seat for your infant is a problem, check with your airline; some, like Southwest, offer Affordable Infant fares.

How do I know if my car seat is safe to use on an airplane?

Check your car seat; if it's safe for flying, it will have an FAA-approved sticker (this language will also be in the car seat's instruction manual, too, if the sticker has worn off). This means the car seat can be used on airplanes as well as in cars because it has passed the inversion test, said Dr. Baer, meaning the child will stay buckled in the seat even if it is turned upside-down.

How do I know if my car seat will fit?

An FAA-approval sticker doesn't guarantee your car seat will fit on your specific airline, said Dr. Baer. Car seats can vary in width, usually from 17 inches to 21 inches. It's best to check your car seat dimensions against the seat dimensions of your airline. You can find approximate dimensions of most car seats on this car seat measurements and data spreadsheet, compiled by members of car-seat.org. For approximate airplane seat dimensions, you can check seatguru.com, or call your airline. "Remember," said Dr. Baer, "it is not the total width of the seat that matters most, but rather how wide it is at the area that is narrowest on the airplane seat (typically where the arm rest is on the airplane seat)."

If you're a frequent flier, you might want to consider the Combi Coccoro car seat; it's ideal for flying, since it's the narrowest seat on the market at 15 inches. "As a bonus," said Dr. Baer, "you can get the Coccoro Flash stroller so that you don't have to carry the child or the car seat through the airport."

The flight attendant is telling me to turn my rear-facing seat forward. Can't I use it rear-facing?

Flight attendants may try to have passengers face car seats forward, but you have the right to keep your car seat rear-facing as long as your child doesn't exceed the height or weight requirements for your particular seat. 

The reason flight attendants might think this is because of a rule in the FAA's circular on Use of Child Restraint Systems on Aircraft, which states that a car seat must be installed in forward-facing seats. This only means that the actual airplane seat must be facing forward, not that your car seat needs to face forward. If, for some reason, you're assigned to a backward-facing airplane seat, you would not be able to use it for a car seat.

>Read about rear-facing car seat guidelines in cars

How do I properly install a car seat on an airplane?

Rear-facing car seats are installed as you would install it in a car. And if the passenger in the seat in front complains about not being able to recline? Dr. Baer says: "Just tell them your baby will sleep better -- and won't kick the back of the seat!"

Installing a forward-facing car seat requires greater attention and maneuvering than rear-facing seats on airplanes. In fact, if you install it wrong, the flight attendant will end up needing to detach the entire seat belt! Dr. Baer gave us these steps for installing a forward-facing seat:

  1. Recline the aircraft seatback.
  2. Put the belt through the car seat belt path. Buckle the belt with the buckle flap toward the airplane seatback, so you will be able to release it.
  3. Tighten the seat belt, and then raise the seatback.

Also note that any car seat must be installed in a seat where it won't block anyone's exit in case of emergency. This means car seats should go in a window seat, or in the middle seat of the middle section when there are aisles on either side for exiting. Car seats are also not allowed in exit rows.

Can I use a booster seat on a flight?

Better check the booster seat, or stash it in her overhead bin -- you cannot use one on a flight, because "airplanes do not have shoulder belts, and boosters require shoulder belts," said Dr. Baer. However, car seats that convert to booster seats are okay to use, but only if you use it with the 5-point harness setting.

Know Your Rights

The stress of flying, especially with a ton of luggage a couple of kids in tow, can easily break down your resolve if an airline employee is giving you a hard time about using or installing a car seat. Dr. Baer shared more highlights from the FAA's circular on Use of Child Restraint Systems on Aircraft, so you can be armed and informed on your next flight:

  • If you purchased a ticket for your child, you are entitled to use the child's car seat in his or her airplane seat.
  • If the car seat doesn't fit in your assigned seat, the airline has to find a different seat that will fit the car seat in the same class of service.
  • Parents can use a restraint for a child of any age or size as long as the restraint is appropriate for that child’s size and weight.

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