When Delta Airlines flight #42721 landed in Memphis, Tennessee on September 17th the passengers were asked to remain seated. Two armed Memphis police officers boarded the plane.
They were coming on board to deal with a dangerous security threat.
That threat was Jen Starks, a 29-old mother of two who had been discreetly nursing a fussy baby during the flight. Baby Tyler was on her front in an Ergo Baby carrier.
Starks was seated in the last row of the airplane, next to a male passenger, separated from her husband and 2-year-old daughter Rita Clare, who were four rows ahead.
The flight attendant insisted that Starks take the baby out of her carrier and told her to hold him over her shoulder. The seatbelt sign was turned off.
Knowing that 8-month-old Tyler, who was nursing and sleeping quietly, would scream and fuss if she unstrapped him, Starks initially stalled for time.
To the best of Starks’ memory, the conversation went something like this:
Stewardess: You need to hold him over your shoulder with your hand over his head for the entire flight.
Starks: I’ve never heard that before. I know I have to do that for take-off and landing.
Stewardess: No, you need to do that and you need to do that right now.
Starks: Your cart’s in the way, it’s going to take some arm movement. I need your cart to get out of the way and then I’ll take him out.
On Monday, September 20, Starks wrote a blog post, “Rebel with a Cause,” detailing how she’d been treated on the airplane.
“Her tone of voice was rude,” Starks told me when I interviewed her yesterday by phone. “She didn’t use rude words but her attitude was like, ‘I have the power and you’re going to do what I say. I’m in charge here and you will do everything I say, and don’t even challenge me.’”
About ten minutes later, the stewardess came back. By then, Starks had decided she was not going to wake her baby and unstrap him.
“‘At that point I said, ‘You know, I’ve thought about it. And I’ve decided not to take him out.’ Her eyes got kind of big. I said, ‘He’s safe in here, he’s sleeping, he’s happy. The seatbelt sign’s turned off. I’ve never heard this rule before. I do not want to take him out. I don’t understand why I have to.’”
Was this a safety issue?
The stewardess, who returned to serve Starks a yellow violation card and then called airport security, never said to Starks that the baby would be safer if not in the carrier.
“We do whatever the FAA tells us we have to do. Safety is our number 1 priority,” said Dory Puche, the Delta Customer Service Representative handling Starks’ case.
But Starks doesn’t think this was a safety issue.
“How could it be safer for [my son] to be out of this carrier, and he’s going to be crying and I’m going to be breastfeeding him in front of everyone?” she wondered.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not the individual airline, dictates safety considerations.
So I called the FAA to ask if there were any requirements that an infant during a non-turbulent flight be taken out of a front pack.
Alison Duquette, spokesperson for the FAA, said no.
The FAA’s written policy about take-off and landing is actually not very clear. It stipulates that belly belts are banned (Duquette said they have been shown to cause abdominal trauma in turbulence) and that children may only be strapped into FAA-approved restraints, but it says nothing specific about front carriers or slings.
According to the FAA, “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges you to secure your child in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size. Turbulence can happen with little or no warning. And when it does, the safest place for your child is in a CRS (child restraint system), not in an adult’s lap. Your arms just aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially when turbulence is unexpected.”
I had to read that twice: Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially when turbulence is unexpected.
Yet parents with lap babies may not hold them strapped securely into an Ergo Baby carrier, where they have no chance of flying out of their arms and bumping their heads on the airplane ceiling.
This seems both confusing and counterintuitive to me. Perhaps the policy was designed based on specific safety studies? Apparently not. Duquette was not aware of any tests comparing the safety of an infant being held in a parent’s arms versus strapped securely in a front carrier.
If it’s safest for a baby to be strapped into an approved baby restraint, why are babies-in-arms allowed on airplanes?
Duquette explains that five years ago, in 2005, the FAA considered mandating that infants have their own seats.
Ultimately they decided against it.
“Because the public is accustomed to kids under two flying for free, some parents sensitive to cost would choose not to fly and instead drive. We are part of the Department of Transportation (DOT). Because highway deaths are very high, we couldn’t do a rule that would put a child in greater harm than in the air,” Duquette said.
Although it’s not mandatory, Duquette would like to see every child in his own seat.
“Everybody wants children in seats not in laps,” she said. “We’ve done outreach to let parents make an informed decision.”
Susan Elliott, Delta Airlines media spokesperson (who was also quick to identify herself as a mom), was eager to talk to me about what happened on the Delta flight.
“We’ve already reached out … to offer an apology and we are investigating the situation,” Elliott said.
Elliott clarified that though Delta feels the responsibility is theirs, the flight was operated by Pinnacle, a regional airline, and the stewardess in question works for them.
But Elliott also said that Delta relies on crew members to make decisions about how best to hold lap children.
“This would be handled on a case by case basis. It depends on how the flight is going. We empower the crews to make that decision,” Elliot said.
Delta policy mirrors the TSA’s. “Infants and children less than 2 years old may travel for free within the U.S. if an adult (12 years or older) holds the infant in arms or places the infant in an FAA-approved child restraint during take-off and landing.”
Starks has been using this unfortunate incident to advocate for more family-friendly skies. She recommends that families with children:
1) Be seated together and seated next to other parents with small children.
2) Be allowed to pre-board flights (this privilege was taken away in favor of zone boarding, which is thought to be more efficacious), which would allow a family to get settled in more quickly and comfortably, especially if they are using a car seat.
3) Be allowed to use a safe carrier to wear infants during flight, one that allows for breastfeeding (like the Ergo Baby), can be used during take-off and landing, and available on board.
4) Be given “Comfort Kits,” with activities for small children and a snack.
What kind of experiences have you had traveling with your children? Do you think this was an isolated case of inappropriate bullying by a flight attendant or just one example of how un-family-friendly the skies have become? Is this incident a wake-up call that the FAA needs to clarify its lap child policy?
Watch the local TV coverage of the incident.
Photos courtesy of Jen Starks.
Tags: baby wearing, breastfeeding, breastfeeding in public, breastfeeding on an airplane, Delta Airlines, Ergo Baby carrier, FAA, flying with children, Jen Starks, lap baby on airplane, Memphis, parents badly treated on airplanes, rules about lap children in flight, Susan Elliott, Tennessee, traveling with babies