One image I can't get out of my head is the parents aboard United Flight 232 wrapping their babies in blankets and pillows, then placing them on the floor, minutes before the DC-10 smashed to the ground.
"It sounds great in a classroom," said Jan Brown of Schaumburg, the senior flight attendant on Flight 232. "When I made that announcement, I realized the lunacy of it."
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But it was the best advice the flight attendants acting on FAA rules could give the mothers and fathers of the four infants aboard the doomed flight that crashed July 19, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa. Of 296 people on board, 112 died.
Twenty-five years later, we've got a better system in place for children under age 2 on planes, don't we?
No, said Brown and Deborah Hersman, former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman and current president of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.
The two formed an alliance to convince Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration to require child safety seats for kids age 2 and under on aircraft.
"We're socialized in air travel to think a lap child is OK," said Hersman. "So many parents get on a plane and think it's all right to restrain themselves but not their children. It's a glaring safety gap and the (government) doesn't have the ability or desire or nerve to fix it."
Currently, the FAA strongly urges, but does not require, the use of child safety seats for those 2 and under.
"Do you know that the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system, not on your lap?" the FAA website states. "Your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence."
When asked why the agency doesn't mandate child seats, spokeswoman Alison Duquette offered this statement.
"While we encourage the use of (child seats), the FAA believes that requiring the use of a child safety restraint, which would require all families traveling with children under 2 years of age to purchase tickets for those children, would significantly raise the net price of travel for those families.
"Such price increases would divert some family travel from the air transportation system to the highway system, and entire families would be subject to far higher fatality rates, which would produce a net increase in overall transportation fatalities." That argument is ludicrous, Hersman says. "No one is applying a cost-benefit analysis to kids over 2 or adults, but somehow we're forcing our most vulnerable passengers to be held to a higher standard when it comes to restraint."
She also notes the FAA's wishy-washy stance combined with contradictory policies by airlines, ticket agents and flight crew end up confusing parents.
Brown recalls the pain of being confronted by an anguished mother who tried to return to the burning airplane to find her toddler, Evan Tsao, who died short of his second birthday. The other three babies survived.
If child safety seats were required by law, "that beautiful little boy would be alive today and looking to his 27th birthday in September," Brown said. "And flight attendants would never face that horrible realization that we're only here to keep passengers 2 years and up safe.
"There should be a disclaimer on your ticket that holding a child on your lap is hazardous to their health."
One more thing
I've had mixed experiences bringing my toddler's child seat on airplanes in my travels. Once, en route to Toronto, I quarreled with a Porter Airlines ticket agent who worried my FAA-approved seat didn't meet Canadian government standards. Of course, that's nothing compared to my war with the seat itself while trying to install it in an airplane's confined quarters.
Got any opinions on child seats on airplanes? Any war stories? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
The FAA's website does have some useful safety tips including a link to a belt and buckle device called the "CARES Child Aviation Restraint System" for kids weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. It fits in a carry-on and is much lighter than most hefty child seats. To check it out, go to www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/.
The wheels on the bus
Happy birthday, Pace. The suburban bus system turns 30 this month after revving its motors on July 1, 1984. The agency consolidated several local bus companies. Way back when, adult fares were 90 cents compared to $1.75 now. Ridership over the last 30 years totaled 1 billion, including paratransit and vanpool. And, Pace buses have traveled about 750 million miles over three decades.
You should know
Give yourself extra time if you plan on using remote parking at O'Hare International Airport starting Tuesday night. The city is closing its people-mover (ATS) between Economy Parking Lot E and Terminal 5 now through November for bridge work. Shuttle buses will take fliers between Lot E and Terminals 1, 2 and 3, plus there will be shuttles from Lot E to Terminal 5.
• Headed to Metra's board meeting Friday? This week, the board is taking its show on the road to Joliet. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. in the Will County offices, 302 N. Chicago.
• Registration is still open for the Active Transportation Alliance's Bike to Brew event on July 26. The event includes a chance to ride from downtown Chicago to Revolution Brewing on Kedzie for a private party.
The bike ride starts around 5 p.m. For more info, go to www.biketobrew.org/.