By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The nation's transportation safety watchdogs will try to persuade the public today to voluntarily buckle their infants into child-safety seats on planes after failing for decades to get the government to order it.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which monitors and advises on travel safety, has investigated several accidents in which airliners were buffeted so severely that babies sitting in parents' laps were flung through the air, sometimes with tragic consequences.
"If we are so careful to strap our children into car seats when we drive to the airport, then why are we not as diligent in securing them in a seat of their own on the aircraft?" NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman says.
The agency is having a one-day forum on the importance of child-safety restraints in aircraft and motor vehicles.
Now, parents can hold their infants in their laps on planes and secure them with their own seatbelts. But accident investigators say that it's impossible to hold onto a baby in an accident, which could turn a 20-pound child into the equivalent of a 100-pound missile. "Was it hard holding onto a baby in a plane crash? Absolutely," says Jim Whitaker, who volunteered to safeguard the 9-month-old boy whose mother was sitting next to him on the US Airways flight that splashed down onto the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009.
Tess Sosa, who handed baby Damian to Whitaker, says what she saw during the rough water landing convinced her that child restraints should be required.
After decades of public debate between accident investigators and aviation regulators, there's little likelihood that the rules — which allow children age 2 and under to sit in a parent's lap — will change any time soon.
The Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates airlines, agrees that babies should sit in approved car seats or other restraint devices when flying.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last month in his blog urged parents traveling during the holidays to strap in their babies on planes.
But the FAA concluded in 2004 that it wouldn't require families to buy an airline seat for babies because the increased cost would shift travel onto more dangerous highways, thereby causing more deaths than it would save.
"There has not been a preventable commercial aviation fatality of a child under 2 in 16 years," says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
For Hersman and other child-safety advocates, the lack of recent fatalities is little solace.
Whitaker successfully held onto baby Damian in the Hudson River crash landing last year. But a passenger aboard a Continental Airlines jet that skidded off a runway in Denver on Dec. 20, 2008, briefly lost her grasp on her child.
The unidentified woman told NTSB investigators that as the jet bounced over gullies, her baby "floated" out of her arms toward the seat in front of her before she could grab the child out of the air.
Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, says that airlines and the FAA should do more to promote use of safety seats, such as providing training on how to correctly install the seats.
Airlines encourage passengers to use the safety seats and have urged the FAA to require the seats, says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents large carriers.
It just amazes me that the FAA allows infants/children to sit on their parents' laps. The reason they give- that it will encourage people to travel on the highways in lieu of air travel, is unbelievable.
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