A passenger plane is well into a five hour flight across the Atlantic when suddenly it hits a spot of heavy turbulence. For seasoned travellers, it’s probably not the first time they’ve felt that disconcerting drop, causing them to spill coffee all over themselves, but for those looking after small children there’s a wealth of safety factors that need to be taken into account.

Naturally parents will play all manner of scenarios in their minds as they run through the checklist for child safety onboard. They brought the aviation-approved car seat for the six-month-old and strapped it in place as instructed. The three-year-old is big enough to be strapped into in adult seat.

Generally speaking most children in planes under the age of one are not deemed safe enough in a regular seat (due their size which is on average under 40lb) and must be either secured using an approved child restrain seat (CRS) or a loop belt, which is an auxiliary belt which fastens the child to an adult’s lap.

“Most children in planes under the age of one are not deemed safe enough in a regular seat.”

Back in the 1920s when planes took off at around 65km/h, parents were instructed to simply hold their infants in their laps. The practise persists today in the jet-engine age and isn’t questioned. One, somewhat chilling, reason for this is that children not allocated their own seat don’t appear in airline crash statistics.

Apart from the approved car seat, parents can secure their young in one of a handful of purpose-built aviation safety seats. And provided you’re not flying with an American, or until recently a German, carrier, you have the option of the loop belt. This method has generated its fair share of controversy over the years and is currently the focus of intense debate in Germany.

But to date there are no laws in any country stipulating how parents must transport infants; only what they can’t do. The FAA for instance bans all manner of booster seats and harness devices, including the loop belt, yet it has officially endorsed only one child seat while ‘recommending’ parents chose an aviation-approved car seat appropriate for the weight of the child.

“We do not mandate child restraints but highly recommend it,” says Alison Duquette, a communications manager with the FAA. In other words it’s all up to the discretion of the parent; hardly the sort of rigorous system needed to guarantee the safety either of children or other passengers in the event of an accident.

Fastening the belt on child flight

Most countries have very strict laws governing how children must be secured in cars, a fact that many feel the world’s airlines and their various governing bodies should take serious note of. Without similar laws in aviation, there is slim demand amongst airlines for purpose-built seats, with just a handful of products currently in the market. And there are even fewer that carry an official stamp of approval from an aviation regulator.

“Children not allocated their own seat don’t appear in airline crash statistics.”

Leading the field is UK aviation specialist Mann Aviation, which in partnership with Virgin Atlantic a few years back developed the skycot. The product is the only child seat formally approved by the European Air Safety Authority (EASA).

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) of the US gives its stamp to another seat, the CARES seat, manufactured by aviation seatbelt and pilot restraint specialists AmSafe Aviation. CARES is designed specifically for aviation use for children aged one and older who weigh between 22lb and 44lb. These youngsters are old enough to be in their own seats, but are too small for the seat belt alone to protect them.

Hamburg-based manufacturer Innovint has developed a child safety seat which has been bought by organisations including the Swiss Air Ambulance (REGA). Some 30 of Innovint’s Skykids in-flight seats are currently fitted to various craft belonging to the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). It is also certified by the German Federal Aviation Authority (LBA). However, as there are still no regulations in any country regarding infant aviation passengers, the level of orders from commercial airlines has been quite dismal.

Despite being one of the most high-profile companies in the child-seat market, Mann Aviation’s only client for this product set is Virgin Atlantic. The carrier has so far bought close to 120 seats to cover the fleet and further orders are expected in the next six months.

Virgin’s investment in safety seats was initially aimed at its first-class passengers. In order to satisfy safety regulators, Virgin needed a customised solution taking into account the 45° angle of its first class seats and the fact that the seatbelts in this class hold an airbag. Previously Virgin’s first-class passengers with children had to retreat back into economy seating for take-off and landing.

All Virgin passengers are now offered ‘skycots’, bassinets for infants under one year old, and the infant care chair developed by the carrier for children aged six months to three years depending on height and weight. “No other type of child seat is permitted on Virgin Atlantic flights,” says Virgin Atlantic senior press officer, Polly Durant. Virgin does, however, allow the loop belt.

“Parents can secure their young in one of a handful of purpose-built aviation safety seats.”

Musical chairs

According to Mann Aviation’s head of design Kevin Hann, while the introduction of formal regulations governing child seats would obviously mean better business for those making them, he feels that it would also be in the best interests of passengers and airlines for there to be more clarity on the matter. “We are trying to sell these seats but they are not mandated.” And with more than two decades’ experience in aviation design and safety he is adamant that the loop belt is not safe.

Mann Aviation is in discussions with a number of major airlines, including Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Etihad which have expressed interest in the skycot, however, no formal agreements have been signed as yet.

Hann says that given most airlines recoup a small charge from passengers using child seats, there is a fairly fast return on investment. Virgin, for instance, charges £30 for the use of a skycot. “Virgin has 100% take-up of the seat in their aircraft,” Hann says.

But while most airlines accept the business plan, Hann admits that the credit crunch has already led airlines to cut spending on equipment that isn’t mandatory. Cathay Pacific cited similar reasons for baulking on a recent major order with Mann Aviation.

The loop-belt noose

A WDR TV documentary in Germany earlier this year raised serious questions about the quality of child safety in aviation after staging and airing dramatic crash tests that seemed to expose the dangers of the loop belt.

“The FAA bans all manner of booster seats and harness devices, including the loop belt.”

Rejected by the US and other countries as unsafe, the loop belt has been at the centre of a fierce debate in Germany where it used to be banned but where there are pressures to adopt the recently updated EU guidelines that permit its use in aircraft.

The situation has been very uncomfortable for German transport minister Wolfgang Tiersensee, who has come under fire for advocating that Germany adopt the wider European position and allow the belts despite the government resolutely opposing them for years.

In testing conducted with WDR, and in conjunction with standards and safety body TÜR, Rheinland had shown conclusively that loop belts are dangerous.

There have been countless other tests done on loop belts in various countries over the years using crash test dummies. Results have varied greatly. In the US, other countries, and until recently Germany, regulators have relied on data which indicates that in the event of an aborted take-off or crash, a parent lurching forward could in fact crush the organs of an infant, meaning that a loop belt could indeed be fatal. By extension, it was concluded that a child is safer simply held in the arms of an adult.

Some safety experts argue that there is no actual evidence from real events but this merely serves to highlight the uncomfortable fact that infants not allocated a seat are not recorded in the statistics.

Tiersensee and the German government are now in a difficult position, having to manage both the incendiary issue of child safety as well as mounting pressure from leading airline Lufthansa as well as TUIfly to accept the EU consensus on the belts. Both airlines claim that disallowing loop belts would make them less competitive because their passengers would be forced to buy an extra seat for their infants and may therefore chose to fly with another carrier. Lufthansa and TUIfly recently both made significant orders for loop belts.

“Given most airlines recoup a small charge from passengers using child seats, there is a fairly fast return on investment.”

One of the reasons the FAA refuses to mandate child safety seats is that families forced to buy an additional seat may chose to hit the road, where fatalities are far more common.

Daniel Holtgen, director of communications with EASA, accepts that there are various valid economic arguments surrounding the issue of child seating in aviation. For instance some airlines contend that forcing passengers to buy another seat would push them to another carrier or other mode of transport, while other passengers purchasing another seat forfeits revenue.

“The economic argument must be seen in perspective,” Holtgen says. “Infants make up only a small proportion of air passengers; the foregone cost of an additional seat probably would not cripple commercial airlines. Would a family cancel a holiday if they had to buy an extra seat? That survey hasn’t even been conducted yet.”

An accident waiting to happen?

Addressing the European Parliament in June this year, Eva Lichtenberger from the committee on transport and tourism to the commission expressed grave concerns about the EU’s position on loop belts in the face of the crash test conducted by WDR TV.

“The current, proposed rules will continue to authorise these belts, disregarding the fact that far more stringent safety provisions apply to children even in cars, in most European states at least.”

“Even if emergency landings or aborted take-offs are very, very rare – for which we are most thankful and which is also to do with technical rules – we cannot allow infants and small children to be exposed to this risk. Anyone who has seen this crash test will be convinced that we cannot allow that.” Following the documentary, a commission was formed and a study undertaken to more formally examine loop belts.

“Families forced to buy an additional seat may chose to hit the road, where fatalities are far more common.”

Antonio Tajani, vice president of the commission, told the same parliamentary sitting that the results of that study had been inconclusive. “If there is no certainty from a scientific point of view as to which are the best devices to ensure children’s safety, we can do nothing here and now, not least because under the existing regulation it is after all the member states’ responsibility to take decisions: those using child seats can of course continue to do so if they regard that as the best mechanism.”

“As soon as I am presented with clearer facts – with a scientific response backed by evidence that enables me to act – I shall take action. Otherwise it would be superficial of me to say: ‘Fine, I have decided that child seats are better than safety belts’. No one is in a position to say that unless they have carried out scientific tests, with physical proof demonstrating that one system is better than another.”

So it seems child aviation safety will remain at the mercy of both bureaucratic dithering and the limitations of scientific testing for a little while longer.

As EASA’s Holtgen points out, unfortunately it will probably take a tragedy of some sort to generate the necessary impetus. “Of course if there were to be an accident and a child is severely injured or killed due to the absence of a proper child safety system or injury caused by a loop belt, the pressure to regulate would be significant.”