Why Air Travel Authorities Say Yes to Lap Infants but No to Wheelchairs on Airplanes

Any wheelchair user who has ever flown on a plane knows exactly what a nightmare air travel can be. From having to be transferred by often inept wheelchair assistance airport employees to stressing out over potential wheelchair damage, the entire process is enough to cause a lot of anxiety. The best solution is clearly to allow wheelchair users to remain in theirWheelchairs during their flights — especially those with highly customized chairs designed for their safety and comfort. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) insists that this isn’t safe, despite the fact that they still allow infants under the age of two to fly unrestrained on someone’s lap. Here is the FAA’s reasoning behind these conflicting rules.

FAA: Infants are safer on planes than cars

I’m the mother of two children, and before I was a full-time wheelchair user, my ex-husband and I had the “pleasure” of flying with them several times. To be fair to them, they are actually great travelers, even when they were small. But spending several hours with infants or toddlers on an airplane is no walk in the park. Often, they need constant cuddling, feeding, and entertaining. Even if restrained in their own seats, they usually don’t stay there for long.

For decades, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) has stated that “children are safest when they are properly secured in a child safety seat, in their own seat, when flying.” Since 1979, the NTSB has wanted the FAA to remove the exemption that permits babies and young children to fly as lap infants. Even the FAA has said, “Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence,” and they “strongly urge you to secure your child in a [child safety restraint system] or device for the duration of the flight.”

My younger son flying at 18 months old while strapped into his car seat.

So, with all of these warnings and recommendations by both the NTSB and FAA, why are infants and toddlers still allowed to fly on someone’s lap? Simply put, because planes are safer than cars. In 2005, the FAA issued a press release stating that, “if forced to purchase an extra airline ticket, families might choose to drive, a statistically more dangerous way to travel.” The press release referred to the statistic that in 2004, nearly 43,000 people died on America’s highways as compared to 13 on commercial flights. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration supported the FAA’s decision based on studies at the time that showed a mandate could result in another 13 to 42 at a family member fatalities over 10 years in highway accidents.

FAA: Seats must withstand forces up to 16g

The process of restraining disabled passengers in their own wheelchairs is more complicated than restraining anyone in an aircraft seat. In 2005, the FAA issued a new rule, which affected aircraft built after October 2009. This rule stated that aircraft seats must be able to withstand 16 times the force of gravity. Floors and the tracks the seats ride on must also be able to withstand those forces. Additionally, the new seats would have to undergo a battery of tests to determine their strength, similar to automobile crash tests.

NTSB photo of a Boeing 777 cabin after Asiana 214 crashed in San Francisco. Only two of 307 passengers died, but more than 100 suffered serious injuries and two were paralyzed.

In response to a push for wheelchair users to remain in their wheelchairs on flights, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) pointed out that aircraft seats are constructed to meet rigorous safety regulations that include survivability at several times the force of gravity. So at the present time, these certified aircraft seats are the only permissible seating for all passengers.” All passengers, except for very small children.

To be very clear, the FAA is concerned that some passengers with toddlers or infants will travel under less safe conditions (and ultimately deprive airlines of revenue) if they choose to drive instead of fly. However, the FAA seems to be okay with wheelchair users traveling under less safe conditions over fear of wheelchair damage and extreme discomfort in airplane seats (while also depriving airlines of revenue).

Realities of air accidents render wheelchair restrictions meaningless

Statistics related to the survivability of an airplane crash are tricky. While technically, the majority of passengers involved in aircraft accidents do survive, that survivability is related to several factors that have to line up perfectly. Tom Farrier, former director of safety at the Air Transport Association, explained that three general conditions help determine whether an accident is survivable:

  • Whether the forces encountered by human occupants are within the limits of human tolerance
  • Whether the structures surrounding (i.e. the plane) them remain substantially intact
  • Whether the post crash environment presents an immediate threat to occupants or rescuers

In practical terms, this means that your odds of surviving a plane crash are considerably lower if you crash in the middle of the ocean or a rural/desolate/unpopulated part of the world. Your aircraft would also somehow have to make a relatively controlled landing, or at least enough for the plane to remain substantially in one piece. The presence of fire during a plane crash also dramatically affects your odds.

However, one of the key components to crash survivability is being able to evacuate the aircraft quickly. For passengers with disabilities flying in an airplane seat, this is impossible. Flight attendants are trained to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds or less. However, sometimes people are panicking, trying to grab their personal belongings, and trampling over each other. Wheelchair users are accorded extra time to board because they require the use of an aisle chair and physical assistance during transfers into airplane seats.

An aisle chair used for boarding wheelchair users onto airplanes.

Most US airlines don’t require wheelchair users to travel with an assistant except in circumstances where the wheelchair user requires considerable help with feeding and basic self-care. However, even if all wheelchair users traveled with an assistant, the odds of that companion being able to pick them up and safely carry them off an airplane that just crashed within 90 seconds are zero. While several companies that make slings with handles that are designed to facilitate carrying a disabled passenger in an emergency, these slings require at least two people to function properly. It is not difficult to imagine the prospect of a crew member or complete stranger assisting a wheelchair user’s companion in carrying him or her off a plane that just crashed. An immobile passenger would likely be the last one evacuated from the aircraft.

Statistically speaking, it’s unclear how much safer wheelchair users are in regular airplane seats compared to traveling in their own wheelchairs. In 2014, the US Department of Transportation found air carriers accounted for just 138 deaths a year among the general population, compared with 36,676 deaths by motor vehicle. The NTSB says that the survivability rate for airline accidents is 95.7%. The European transport safety Council estimates that 90% of airline accidents are survivable, meaning no passengers died, or “technically survivable,” where at least one occupant survives.

However, most of those fatalities were a result of impact and fire related factors, including smoke inhalation after impact. That means that even passengers and airline seats rated up to 16g still died.In 2015, Boeing found that passengers who both wore their seatbelts and assumed a brief position or likeliest to survive a plane crash. However, many passengers with disabilities are not able to assume a brief position, which means they are likely to suffer serious head injuries regardless of how they’re seated.

Advocacy groups are working to change the status quo

A non-profit organization called All Wheels Up is currently the only organization in the world that is crash testing wheelchair tie-downs and wheelchairs for commercial flight. According to their website, the organization discovered that existing wheelchair restraints from Q’Straint used in cars and buses can exceed the FAA requirement of withstanding 16g forces. it is currently working to secure funding to conduct aircraft crash tests using these restraints.

Q’Straint wheelchair tie-down straps

However, even if airplane crash tests for wheelchairs using these restraints are successful, wheelchair users wanting to remain in their chairs during flight have an even larger obstacle — the airplanes themselves. Airplane aisles are extremely narrow, to the tune of just over 15 inches wide. even the most narrow manual wheelchairs are typically 20 inches wide. It would be impossible to maneuver even the smallest of wheelchairs into a space on any existing aircraft, let alone use a wheelchair to reach the aircraft lavatory. For this to happen would require a substantial redesign of brand-new aircraft. Airlines would likely be resistant to this because it would reduce the number of available seats on any aircraft, reducing overall revenue.

Bottom Line: It’s about money, not safety

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that the decision to prevent wheelchair users from staying in their wheelchairs on airplanes is about the potential revenue loss and additional costs to airlines and airplane manufacturers rather than safety concerns. If it were about safety concerns, the FAA would have eliminated their exemption for unrestrained infants and toddlers below the arbitrary age of 2 years old a long time ago.

History has shown that the airline industry has been unwilling to accommodate passengers with disabilities over cost concerns for a long time. US airlines are currently required to report the number of wheelchairs lost or damaged every month. However, that requirement, which was initially proposed years ago, was delayed from implementation multiple times due to airlines complaining about what it would cost them to track that data, despite the fact they’ve been tracking lost and damaged baggage for years.

Only recently have airplane manufacturers started including accessible lavatories on their aircraft, but only in new construction on double-aisle wide-body aircraft, which are typically used only for long-haul international flights. Most passengers with disabilities traveling on single aisle domestic flights are still unable to use the lavatory if they can’t walk. Airlines have complained that retrofitting existing single-aisle aircraft with accessible lavatories would be prohibitively expensive.

A still-cramped airplane lavatory.

While current efforts to demonstrate that wheelchair users are just as safe remaining in their chairs on flights are going well, obstacles posed by the airline industry currently seem too great to imply that policy changes will be coming anytime soon. In the meantime, wheelchair users can take steps to prepare for any potential damage to their wheelchairs, and keep lobbying their members of Congress to support further crash tests and airplane accessibility modifications.

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  1. I am a retired flight attendant and on the Board of Directors of All Wheels Up serving as Cabin Safety Advisor. Actually, it is ALSO about safety…and revenue…and the logistics of removing and replacing a row of seats before departure and again after landing. Besides the wheelchair needing to withstand 16Gs, it is imperitive that the wheelchair not become unhinged in a crash. If it does, it could potentially block the egress to exits and prevent many passengers from escaping safely. Also, the location of the lock down is important as nearby passengers (specifically one behind the wheelchair) cannot be at risk from injury if their face or head were to fly forward into the wheelchair. Finally, some sort of shoulder harness needs to be devised for the occupant of the wheelchair to hold them in place in a crash and that needs to meet the same G-force requirements of the seat belts and shoulder harness on the airplane now. There are a lot of moving parts to solving the challenge of being able to ride in one’s wheelchair in an airplane that don’t exist in other forms of transportation. But know some very powerful brains are committed to finding a way to make it happen.

    1. Thank you so much! Can I incorporate this information into my blog post?

      1. Please do!

      2. Jann Hartman

        Exactly! It is about things on a w/c coming loose and being projectiles as well. I use crutches on an airplane, and often have no idea where they are put, and if I could ever get them, if there was time. While traveling in a specialized w/c would be ideal, there are so many obstacles. It is not a simple situation with simple solutions. But, good to talk about what could be done in future builds.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article! I know several people who are unable to fly because they can not safely or comfortably sit in anything but their specialized chairs. It will be interesting to see if the future brings them the accommodations they need!

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