Babes in arms: Keeping infants and small children safe in the skies

ISSN 2369-873X

1 December 2015
Posted by Missy Rudin-Brown

“Chartered plane crashes in southern Nunavut, infant passenger dead.” I remember reading about the accident right around Christmas 2012, a few months after launching my career as a human factors investigator with the TSB. The headlines screamed that the death of a 6-month-old “lapheld” infant – one who was not restrained by a harness or seatbelt or any other type of device – was tragic, especially given the fact that all eight other (adult) occupants of the small commuter plane had survived. I didn’t need convincing of the need to investigate this accident and its completely preventable outcome. My research background and knowledge of how well child restraint systems (CRS) protect children in road accidents made the importance of the issue abundantly clear to me.

My role in the investigation

As a human factors researcher in road safety and occupant protection prior to joining the TSB, I conducted research on what is known as the “usability” of CRS. In that capacity, I advocated for many years that CRS be made easier to use correctly in an effort to improve the safety of our smallest and most vulnerable passengers. Here was an opportunity for me to be involved in an investigation exploring similar issues in aviation. I was introduced to the Investigator-in-charge, Gayle Conners, and we began our shared journey into “all-things-CRS”.

Safety practices here and abroad

The investigation prompted a review of commercial aviation child restraint practices and legislation internationally. We soon became familiar with a number of seemingly incongruous – and puzzling – practices in the world of commercial aviation child restraint. For example, seatbelts are required for passengers over the age of two during taxi, takeoff, approach and landing, and during periods of turbulence, because they can prevent injury and death in survivable aviation occurrences. Carry-on luggage and other items are also required to be stowed during these periods of flight to limit their potential to cause injury. Yet, despite these safeguards, current regulations in North America and elsewhere allow infants and small children to simply be carried on an adult’s lap without proper restraint by a seatbelt or other device. This exposes them to an unnecessarily high level of risk and deprives them of a level of safety provided to older children and adults.

Child restraint practices are also inconsistent across jurisdictions. Many countries, such as those in the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, permit or even require lap-held infants to be restrained with a supplementary – or belly – loop belt. This belt attaches to the adult’s seatbelt and passes around the infant’s abdomen to help restrain the infant in cases of turbulence. However, the supplementary loop belt provides no protection during crash landing conditions, and Canada and the U.S. do not allow its use. Research has shown that infants so restrained fare worse than unrestrained infants, because of the adult’s forward movement during severe impact and the concentrated forces of the supplementary loop on the infant’s abdominal region.

Lack of data on infants and children

As part of the Sanikiluaq investigation, an informal survey of four commercial air transport operators that service Northern communities was carried out. It revealed that infants and children under the age of 12 make up almost 14% of their total passenger loads – a significant proportion of the travelling public. Surprisingly, there are no requirements for airlines to collect or report data on the number of infants and small children who travel. While Canadian air carriers must provide a wide range of information on their overall operations to the Minister of Transport, the number of infant and child passengers is not required. As a result, their numbers onboard aircraft, and whether or not infants are carried on a guardian’s lap or in a separate seat, is not available. This makes it difficult to properly assess infant and child passenger exposure to air travel and associated risks.

Lessons learned from road safety

The Sanikiluaq investigation revealed that lessons learned during the evolution of child passenger safety in the road environment must be translated to the commercial aviation setting so that our youngest passengers can be afforded the level of safety they deserve. As a consequence, the Board issued two recommendations on this issue:

  • that Transport Canada work with industry to develop age- and size-appropriate child restraint systems (CRS) for infants and young children travelling on commercial aircraft, and mandate their use, and that
  • that Transport Canada require commercial air carriers to collect and report, on a routine basis, the number of infants (under 2 years old), including lap-held, and young children (2 to 12 years) travelling by air.

The Board has recently assessed Transport Canada’s (TC) responses and assigned them a rating of “Satisfactory Intent”, which means that the planned action will substantially reduce or eliminate the safety deficiency. In these two instances, while TC is proposing some positive action in the short, medium and long term—it remains to be seen how long it will take for concrete action to happen.

Evolution of child safety

Attitudes towards child passenger safety in the road transport domain have evolved over recent decades to include requirements and regulations regarding the use and manufacture of age- and size-appropriate CRS for children in passenger vehicles, and even in school buses. The time has come to ‘do right by our children’ and apply the lessons learned from research on CRS in the road industry to the commercial aviation context.

Furthermore, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) each released a guidance manual on the approval and use of CRS in 2015. It is clear that a realignment of societal attitudes towards child passenger safety in air travel is needed, so that infants and small children are protected to the same extent as their parents and older children.


Image of Missy Rudin-Brown

Christina (Missy) Rudin-Brown has been a Senior Human Factors Investigator with the TSB since 2012. She has been studying the effects of human factors issues – such as impairment from fatigue, distraction, drugs and alcohol – on operator behaviour in a variety of transportation modes for over 20 years. She lives in Ottawa with her husband and three daughters and, in her spare time, loves to travel and stay fit.

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