Why Did American Airlines Make Me Move My Child’s Safety Seat So Someone Could Recline?

Image courtesy of yooperann

Planning ahead can go a long way when it comes to reducing the amount of stress parents face when flying with their young children. At least that was Becca’s thought when she researched and decided to pay extra so her 7-month-old son could travel rear-facing in his safety seat on a recent American Airlines flight. Despite Federal Aviation Administration rules — and American’s own policies — things didn’t go as planned when a flight attendant ordered Becca to move the child seat so the passenger in the row in front of her could recline. 

Becca tells Consumerist that she purchased three seats for the flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles in May specifically so her son’s car seat could be rear-facing, per safety stipulations for children under one year of age.

After examining FAA guidelines and those of American Airlines, she felt confident paying an additional $300 for her son to have his own seat so that his rear-facing carseat would fit comfortably.

Under those FAA rules, parents are urged to secure their child in a hard-backed child restraint seat (CRS) or device for the entire flight. Based on the FAA suggestions, children under 20 pounds should be in a rear-facing safety seat. Becca’s son weighed 17.5 pounds at the time of the flight.

Per American Airlines’ own policies, infants can either be held by a parent, or by someone who is at least 16 years old, or have their own reserved seat with a safety seat approved by the FAA.

These seats must “have a solid back and seat, restraint straps installed to securely hold the child and a label indicating approval for use on an aircraft,” and be installed per the label on the carrier.

Becca’s son’s carseat met these requirements, and was placed aft-facing per the label.

The flight started smoothly, but shortly after takeoff Becca said she received unexpected pushback from the flight’s crew and another passenger.

“American Airlines jeopardized the safety of my infant so that a passenger could recline their seat,” Becca recalled. “The seat in front of my infant was an emergency row seat where the female had about 6 feet of leg room, but she wanted to recline her seat. My carseat prevented that, which upset this passenger.”

Becca said the woman asked if she could “do something about the carseat,” to which she said she couldn’t, informing her fellow passenger that per the carseat label she couldn’t move it to the forward-facing position.

According to the FAA guideline, a CRS must be installed in a forward-facing aircraft seat, in accordance with instructions on the label. This includes placing the CRS in the appropriate forward- or aft-facing direction as indicated on the label for the size.

Despite following these rules and pointing out the label – which includes a red line stating “this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” – Becca says a flight attendant “continued to argue with me and requested that she adjust the carseat to allow for the patron’s seat to recline.”

While American’s policy notes that safety seats can’t be used in exit rows or the rows directly next to one, she was able to purchase the seat specifically for that reason and wasn’t informed of any issue prior or after take off. Additionally, per the FAA, if an “approved CRS, for which a ticket has been purchased, does not fit in a particular seat on the aircraft, the airline is responsible for accommodating the CRS in another seat in the same class of service.”

That option wasn’t provided to Becca, and the flight attendant moved her son’s carseat diagonally, as it would not fit any other way. At this point, the safety seat was at a “big incline.”

A photo of the inclined child seat shows that it was now in violation of the label, which includes a line that is supposed to be "level with the ground." 

A photo of the inclined child seat shows that it was now in violation of the label, which includes a line that is supposed to be “level with the ground.”

“This incline was unsafe because it caused my son’s head to fall forward to his chest which is a huge suffocation risk,” she tells Consumerist, noting that the carseat was now spilling into her seat, reducing the amount of space she had despite purchasing three seats.

Because her son was asleep at the time, she monitored his breathing for the next hour. After her son’s head fell forward, she took him out of the seat and held him on her lap for the remainder of the flight.

“I do not understand why this passenger’s comfort was more important than my child’s safety,” says Becca, who tried, after the flight, to bring the incident to American’s attention.

She says the airline ignored her until she commented on the American Facebook page. Eventually, the airline offered her 10,000 rewards miles, but she says that would only cover about one-third of the ticket she’d paid full price for.

“This kind of treatment is not only unfair, it is extremely unsafe,” she says. “American put my child at risk. I bought a seat on purpose, and all of this occurred so that one customer could recline two inches.”

Consumerist reached out to American Airlines for comment on the situation. A spokesperson said they would look into the matter. That was three weeks ago; since then, the airline has not responded to any of our messages seeking an update.

Finally, this morning, a rep for the airline would only tell us, “We are reaching out to the passenger to obtain additional information of what allegedly occurred on the aircraft.” That’s right — three weeks to get another “we’re looking into it” non-statement. If the airline ever decides to actually investigate, we’ll update this story.

A spokesperson for the FAA tells Consumerist that “no airline may prohibit a child from occupying an FAA approved Child Restraint System, if certain conditions are met.”

“A child safety seat should be installed in compliance with FAA regulations and the airline’s FAA-approved procedures,” the spokesperson continued. “The FAA is reviewing the incident with the airline and will take appropriate action.”

This isn’t the first time American Airlines has faced issues related to child safety on planes. Earlier this year, the carrier said it should not have told a family that they couldn’t use an FAA-approved CARES (Child Aviation Safety Restraint System) harness for their two-year-old daughter.