When I was training to be a flight attendant, I was surprised to find out that you could even bring car seats on planes. I’d always assumed they weren’t allowed because I ‘d never seen one on a plane. The truth is, the FAA actually strongly encourages parents to put children in car seats when they fly, and most airlines’ official policies corroborate this.
The safest place for your little one on a plane is in an FAA approved car seat or CARES system.
Here are a few important things you need to know about the FAA’s rules on car seats on airplanes:
1. You cannot use a car seat in an exit row.
All passengers in exit row seats must be over the age of 15 and able-bodied, and car seats would block the exit. You may also want to consider not sitting in the rows directly in front of or behind the exit rows. Seats in front of an exit row often do not recline, which can make it difficult to install a car seat on a plane, and the rows immediately after, in the event of an emergency, sometimes people will pull the over-wing door into the cabin and toss it into the row behind them, which could injure your child.
2. Car seats must be placed in a window seat.
Because car seats are bulky, especially when they are rear-facing, if they are not in a window seat, they may block people trying to exit rows into the aisles in the event of an emergency. They must be placed in a window seat so a plane may be safely and quickly evacuated.
3. Follow your car seat manufacturer’s guidelines.
The FAA has forward- and rear-facing weight guidelines on their website. However, the FAA’s weight recommendations are lower than those for general car seat use, and you should go by the weight recommended by your car seat manufacturer rather than the FAA. We will be following new guidelines for car seat safety, and our manufacturer’s recommendation, that say to keep children rear-facing until 2 or until they exceed the rear-facing weight limit on the car seat.
4. Sometimes there is confusion over rear-facing car seats.
Parents occasionally run into issues where they may be asked to turn a rear-facing seat to forward-facing because the flight attendant may be confused about the FAA guidelines. If your airplane seat faces backward, which you rarely see in airplanes today, you aren’t allowed to use a car seat at all. You are always allowed to install a car seat rear-facing if the seat in the plane faces forward.
Another issue with a rear-facing car seat is that the person sitting in front of a rear-facing car seat may not be able to recline their seat.
If you receive pushback from the flight attendant or from another passenger on your car seat for any reason, be sure to carry a print-out of the FAA Advisory Circular on car seats that states you must be allowed to use a car seat on the plane. If the car seat does not work in the current seat, you and your child should be moved to a another seat to accommodate the car seat. These things are stated in section 10 of the circular. You may want to highlight them on your copy before you get on the plane.
5. You can request to try another seat if your car seat doesn’t fit in your current seat.
If your car seat doesn’t work in your current seat, you are entitled to try another seat. If you are in a bulkhead row, ask to be moved to a non-bulkhead row. If you are in a non-bulkhead row, ask to be moved to a bulkhead row.
Please note that if a bulkhead row is also an emergency exit, you will not be able to sit in those seats. See #1.
If your car seat won’t fit in any seats, obviously you will be asked to gate check your car seat, and there’s not a lot you can do about that. Considering how narrow plane seats are, many car seats–even those that are FAA-approved–sometimes don’t fit. Whether a car seat fits can also depend on the air craft, both the model and the specific set-up for the airline.
Read on to find out the best car seats on airplanes.
* This post originally ran on May 28, 2013. It was edited and republished on September 1, 2014 and July 17, 2015.