As every mom or dad knows, infants travelling by car must be firmly strapped into a government-tested, properly installed (and often maddeningly complicated) car seat. Failure on this account can earn you a hefty fine and demerit points. Flying with your kids, on the other hand, is a whole other matter. A commercial airliner moves at more than 10 times the speed of a car, but parents are allowed to travel with their infants dozing comfortably on their laps, secured by nothing more than two loving arms. Does this make any sense? It certainly does.
A tragic crash in Nunavut just before Christmas has revived one of the more contentious, and illuminating, debates about the costs and benefits of transportation regulations, not to mention public perceptions of risk.
A twin-engine Fairchild turboprop overshot the runway at Sanikiluaq airport on Dec. 22, 2012, and landed hard. According to the territory’s coroner, six-month-old Andy Isaac Appaqaq died after suffering head injuries when he was thrown from his mother’s lap. The pilots and six other passengers, all strapped in their seats, survived.
The tragic loss of a young life, particularly when everyone else on board lived, has spurred calls on social and conventional media for child air travel rules that mirror those on the road. “We need better practices and better regulations to keep our children as safe in the air as the grown-ups around them,” wrote one Canadian in a letter to The Globe and Mail.
Most airlines allow children under the age of two to travel free if they sit on a parent’s lap and don’t take up a separate seat. For international flights, babies-in-arms typically pay 10% of an adult ticket. Safety seats are recommended but not required by either Canadian or American air travel regulators. As odd as this may seem, it’s safer for infants.
The issue of child seats on planes was settled following a spectacular United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989 (a story retold many times, including the 1993 film Fearless with Jeff Bridges), in which 112 passengers, including two infants, died while 184 others survived. In the aftermath, two U.S. legislators, representative Jim Lightfoot and senator Kit Bond, demanded that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandate child seats on all commercial airplanes, in the belief that such a measure would have saved the two young lives. It was a crusade with considerable public appeal and the appearance of common sense, given the existing rules for child seats in cars.
There are, however, complicating factors to consider. A flurry of research spurred by the proposal revealed that mandating child safety seats would substantially raise the cost of travel for families, as a separate ticket would now be required for every infant. According to the FAA, the Lightfoot/Bond proposal would have led to an 18% reduction in flights by infants, due to the higher cost of flying.
But fewer flights doesn’t mean less travel. It means more trips by car. And car travel is much, much deadlier than flying. This shift from air to car travel due to higher ticket prices, the FAA estimated, would lead to an additional 13 to 42 infant deaths in car accidents over a 10-year period, and thousands more non-fatal injuries. That’s the cost. And it would be borne largely by lower-income travellers.
The benefit: Given that the type of crash in which a baby in his mother’s arms is likely to die while others survive is extremely rare, it was calculated that such a policy might save a single child — undoubtedly of parents wealthy enough to pay higher fares — per decade.
The issue of safety seats thus weighs dozens of additional road deaths against the possibility of one life saved every 10 years from flying. To their credit, air travel regulators in both Canada and the U.S. have refused to mandate safety seats on planes despite repeated outcries from the public every time a child dies in a plane crash. In a society that has managed to panic itself over such non-existent threats to child safety as mini-blinds, water bottles and rustic playgrounds, this victory of clear-eyed analysis over unscientific sentiment seems all the more remarkable.
We ought to mourn the loss of a young child’s life in Nunavut. But we should also recognize that many other lives have been saved because parents are still allowed to travel with an infant on their lap.