Is air travel with kids car seats really worthwhile? Should you bother flying with a toddler car seat? Child Passenger Safety Technician Nathan Washatka from Buckle Up For Life at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center tells suitcases&strollers why flying with car seats on the plane is essential and the alternatives for safe airline travel for little ones if kids car seats are just not feasible.

What is the point of flying with a kids car seat on the plane? How will using kids car seats on planes help in a crash?

Using a kids car seat on the plane helps ensure that children are held securely and safely in the airplane seat in the event of turbulence. Lap-only seat belts — like the ones found on airplanes — are not designed to safely restrain small children.

Up to what age should kids be sitting in kids car seats on planes? For instance, should parents be flying with a toddler car seat?

Car seats with five-point harnesses offer the best protection for infants and small children. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) actually does not allow the use of booster seats during takeoff and landing. Check with your airline to find out what kinds of restrictions they have regarding the use of booster seats.

How do you know if your kids car seat is the right kind to use on a plane? 

Check your kids car seat owner’s manual. Not all kids car seats are approved for use on airplanes.

Your kids car seat should have a label that clearly states it has been approved for use on an airplane. If you can’t find such a label, refer to your car seat owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer.

Planes generally use lap seat belts rather than over-the-shoulder. Does this compromise the safety of flying with car seat on the plane?

Booster seats should only be used with a lap-and-shoulder belt [and will generally not be allowed for takeoff and landing anyway]. However, in the US, car seats can absolutely be installed using a lap-only belt. If your kids car seat has been approved for use on an airplane, refer to the owner’s manual for instructions on how to safely install it on the airplane.

[For more travel tips on how to safely install a kids car seat, see the suitcases&strollers interview with a Child Passenger Safety Expert.] 

What are the basic dimensions one should look for in a kids car seat to ensure it will fit on to the plane?

The FAA indicates that kids car seats 16 inches wide or less will typically fit on an airplane seat. However, just because your kids car seat fits on an airplane seat does not necessarily mean you may use it in the airplane. The kids car seat must be approved by the manufacturer and government for airplane use.

Do all airlines have to allow air travel with car seats?

While most airlines should allow the use of kids car seats, it would be smart to double-check with your airline before going to the airport. They might also have advice for lugging your kids car seat through the airport and getting it installed on the plane.

[For a list of family-friendly airlines compared, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Do kids car seats typically count as part of your baggage allowance?

Great question. Many airlines will not count a kids car seat as one of your bags, but it’s best to check with the airline before flying.

Are there any other products you recommend that parents can use if they prefer not to attempt flying with car seat on the plane?

The FAA has approved the use of a specialised harness restraint for children weighing between 22 (10 kilograms) and 44 pounds (20 kilograms) — information about it can be found here. It’s important to note that this harness is not suitable for use in cars.

Is it safe to strap infants to parents via a cloth baby carrier while seated on the plane instead of using a kids car seat?

A baby sling will not restrain your child. It’s designed to carry an infant, not restrain him or her in the event of a crash or turbulence. Car seats offer the best protection.

[Infant carriers should never replace a kids car seat, says our suitcases&strollers Child Passenger Safety Expert. Check out his interview plus a sobering video demonstration here.]