A Transportation Safety Need . . . 25 Years Later

By Christopher A. Hart  

On July 19, 1989, the unthinkable happened –fragments from an uncontained engine explosion took out all three independent hydraulic systems of a DC-10 traveling from Denver to Chicago, rendering all flight controls ineffective. Then an amazing thing happened – despite this catastrophic event, the pilots and emergency responders were able to save 185 [1] of the 296 people on board when the plane crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. The NTSB’s investigation of this accident led to 25 recommendations and advancements in aviation safety, including research on non-destructive inspection techniques for rotating engine parts and reliability of flight controls. Twenty-five years later, however, one issue that remains unaddressed is the issue of allowing lap-held infants.

For more than 30 years, the NTSB has investigated aircraft accidents involving unrestrained children and has issued safety recommendations asking the FAA to require that children under age 2 be appropriately secured in a child restraint. Unlike when they are riding in a car, children under age 2 on an airplane are permitted to travel unrestrained. However, adults may not be able to maintain a secure hold on a lap-held child during turbulence or survivable accidents, as appears to have been the case with this united flight. Preventable deaths and injuries have occurred in children under age 2 who were unrestrained.

We issued our most recent recommendation addressing this concern following the investigation of the March 22, 2009, crash of a private plane carrying a pilot and 13 passengers in Butte, Montana. The plane was equipped with only 10 seats; however, the investigation determined that some seats were occupied by two passengers. We asked the FAA to mandate child seats for all passengers, including those in general aviation aircraft. In response to this and previous recommendations, the FAA has encouraged, but not required, parents to use appropriate restraints for children under 2, on the basis of their concerns that parents may choose to drive to their destination instead of flying if they are required to purchase another seat for their infants, but the likelihood of death or injury is greater from driving than from flying.

Meanwhile, the problem remains. Earlier this year, a United Airlines flight encountered severe turbulence while flying from Denver to Billings, Montana. While it’s not uncommon to hear reports of planes encountering turbulence and passengers being jostled around in their seats, what was particularly concerning about this incident was that a baby who was traveling on a parent’s lap received minor injuries.

The safety of infants and children on aircraft was discussed at the 38th Session of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) General Assembly, held in September 2013. The Assembly identified the need for recommended practices encouraging air operators to use child restraint devices appropriate to each child’s size and weight, as well as guidance for regulations related to child restraints and the use of different types of devices. The NTSB is supporting ICAO’s efforts by providing an advisor to the ICAO Cabin Safety Working Group. This group is focusing on the importance of developing guidance material to assist ICAO member states and operators to implement the use of child restraint system and enhance safety of infants and children on board aircraft in an internationally harmonized manner.

Parents want to keep their children as safe as possible. When parents drive, they look to state laws for guidance on how to properly restrain our children; when they fly, they look to the FAA or airline to determine how to best restrain our children during flight. Unfortunately, the laws and regulations for flying with our children don’t always reflect what is best or safest. The NTSB has long recommended and advocated for children to be properly secured in a restraint appropriate for their size, whether flying or driving.

On that fateful day twenty-five years ago, United Airlines Flight 232 approached Sioux City airport at over 240 miles per hour. What the pilots were able to accomplish was remarkable. The fact that the parents of two lap children couldn’t hold on to their babies, however, was not surprising. Another passenger found one of the babies and was able to get her out of the plane; the other infant did not survive. Lap babies rarely die in airplane crashes, but those statistics are little comfort the families that have suffered such a loss.

After pursuing this issue for decades, we are very disappointed that there has been little progress. We are encouraged, however, that ICAO has begun discussing the issue, and we hope that those activities will bear fruit in the foreseeable future.

[1] One passenger survived the initial crash, but died 31 days later. For the purposes of the NTSB report, this passenger’s injuries were classified as “serious.”

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