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What to Know About Car Seats on an Airplane

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 06, 2022

Traveling with a child is no picnic. Much preparation is needed. Snacks, clothes, toys — it's a lot to stress over.

Flying on a plane with your child may seem like an impossible task. The passengers learn several airplane safety procedures, but how can your child stay safe? Proper "car" seats can keep your child secure and relieve some of your stress.

Child Safety on a Plane

Though it's not required, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) highly recommends that you secure your child in an approved restraint system. Your child is more in danger if they're in your lap or only using the standard seat belts on the airplane.

There are two types of child safety systems that you can use on an airplane. The first is a child restraint system (CRS), including typical car seats. The other is a child aviation restraint system (CARES) from AmSafe, the only car seat alternative approved by the FAA.

All About CRSs

An ordinary car seat is a CRS, but the government doesn't approve all car seats for airplanes. Approved CRS devices will have a label that says you can use them on airplanes.

The label is important. It must be visible on your CRS. If it's not, you may need to check your car seat as baggage, leaving your child without a CRS on the airplane.

Prohibited CRSs. There are four types of car seats. Car seats without a back, like booster seats, aren't allowed on airplanes.

Booster seats lack the security of other car seats on an airplane. Since the back of an airplane seat can move, your child can be at risk of an abdominal injury in an emergency.

Choosing the Right Seat

Your child's car seat will depend on their age, size, and the limits set by the car seat manufacturer. If your child exceeds the weight limits of one seat, they may need to move up to the next degree of CRS.

Seat size requirement and accommodation. Most approved car seats will fit in an airplane seat if they aren't wider than 16 inches. The airline must accommodate if the approved car seat doesn't fit and you've purchased a ticket for that seat.

The airline must find a seat in the same class you purchased the ticket. Suppose you purchased a coach ticket for your child's CRS. In that case, the new seat must also be in coach.

Some airlines have policies that determine where the safe seats are in a particular aircraft. Confirm with the airline before making plans to fly if this is the case.

Rear- and forward-facing car seats. The two main car seats suitable for airplanes are rear- and forward-facing. The better type depends on your child's age and size.

Rear-facing car seats are for children up to 3 years old. You want to keep the child in a rear-facing seat as long as possible until they outgrow the limits set by the manufacturer.

Forward-facing car seats are for children younger than 7 years old that have outgrown a rear-facing car seat. A child can use a forward-facing car seat until they've outgrown it.

Using a seat belt.Children 8 years old and older can safely use a seat belt as long as:

  • The lap belt sits across their upper thighs
  • The shoulder belt sits on their shoulder and chest
  • If the belt doesn't rest on their stomach or neck

Consider a CARES child safety device if your child has outgrown their forward-facing car seat, uses a booster seat, or isn't big enough to use a seat belt.

Other Tips for Flying With a CRS

Flying with your child isn't as easy as bringing the car seat on the plane. You can take steps beforehand to give you the best possible flying experience.

Ask about discounted seat options. Contact your airline about a discounted seat. Some airlines offer family deals or children's discounts. Paying for a seat will reserve a seat for your child, so cutting costs can save some headache.

Reserve the right seats. Purchase tickets for adjoining seats so you can sit next to your child, not across an aisle. These seats can't be on an emergency row regardless of the type of CRS or CARES harness you use.

Depending on your flights, you may be able to use an empty seat rather than buy a ticket. Ask your airline first before making this decision if they have specific policies. It would help if you also flew during non-peak hours to ensure there is an empty seat.

Some airlines instruct CRSs to be in window seats. A CRS not in a window seat can obstruct paths in an emergency.

Ask for help getting to a connecting flight. Car seats are bulky. Getting across an airport with a car seat, your carry-ons, baby gear, and your child can be chaotic. The airline might be able to assist, such as with a shuttle, in getting you to your flight.

CARES, a CRS Alternative

A CARES safety device is a harness alternative to a typical car seat. Children between 22 and 44 pounds can use a CARES harness, making it a suitable alternative to booster seats on an airplane.

The CARES harness is lightweight and can fold to fit your carry-on bag. You cannot use these harnesses in cars. Still, they're the only safety harness approved by the FAA.

Children With Disabilities

Most children outgrow a typical CRS once they reach 40 pounds. Children with disabilities may need a safety device on an airplane even though they weigh more than 40 pounds.

Manufacturers create CRSs for children with disabilities. As long as you meet these requirements, you and your child can fly safe.

  • Your child is under 18.
  • The CRS is approved and properly labeled.
  • Your child meets the CRS's weight limits.
  • Your child is secure in the seat.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

AmSafe: "Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES)."

Federal Aviation Administration: "Advisory Circular," "Child Safety," "Flying with Children."

NHTSA: "Car Seats and Booster Seats."

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