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Mother's efforts to secure child on flights thwarted as Canada delays safer travel rules

Despite years of warnings and research, babies and small children are allowed to fly without proper seatbelts.

Child safety restraints not required despite 2012 crash that killed baby boy who was thrown from mother's arms

Child seat belt policy on airlines raises safety concerns | Go Public

CBC News

3 years ago
Transport Canada has known about risks for years, yet still allows infants to sit on their parents' laps and small children to use adult-sized seatbelts, Go Public investigation finds 1:37

Toronto mom Susan Muscovitch is convinced if she doesn't secure her two-year-old daughter using a child seatbelt she brings with her on flights, she'd be putting her little girl's safety at risk.

A Go Public investigation found Transport Canada has known about those risks for years, based on its own safety advisories and research going back decades, yet it still allows infants to sit on their parents' laps and small children to use adult-sized seatbelts.

The airlines are supposed to allow passengers the option to use their own approved child seats and seatbelts, but Muscovitch says on three separate occasions in the past nine months, flight attendants have refused to let her secure her daughter with a special belt.

She says it's "mind-boggling" that some flight attendants don't seem to know the rules.

"If the plane's shaking, they could be thrown around so easily when they're so little."

She says it's not only time for Transport Canada to make child seats and belts mandatory on all flights, the airlines should supply them.

"The airlines nowadays charge you for every little thing, but they should be supplying these harnesses for toddlers and small children," she says. "They should be mandatory."

Susan Muscovitch of Toronto is speaking out because she says she's been prevented from using her Transport Canada-approved seatbelt for her child on flights. (CBC)

Between 2001 and 2015, Go Public found six babies have been injured and one six-month-old boy was killed after being thrown from their parents' laps during turbulence or a crash.

"If you have a baby lying in a seat or lying in your lap with no restraint system, that child is going to hit the ceiling," aviation safety consultant Barbara Dunn tells Go Public.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says it's impossible for an adult to hold on to an infant during a plane crash.

Baby thrown from mother's lap

The lack of mandatory child seatbelts led to at least one baby's death in Canada, according to the Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash that killed six-month-old Isaac Andy Appaqaq in 2012.

Appaqaq was sitting on his mother's lap — the method advised by airlines — on a small charter flight from Winnipeg to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, when the plane missed the runway and crashed. The baby was thrown from his mother's arms.

Lucy Ann Appaqaq holds her infant son, Isaac Andy Appaqaq, who later died in a plane crash. (Lucy Ann Appaqaq)

He was found dead under the captain's rudder pedals.

"No parent should ever have to go through what my husband and I have," the boy's mother, Lucy Ann Appaqaq, wrote in an email to Go Public.

Most of the adult passengers, wearing seatbelts, had minor injuries.

A Transportation Safety Board investigation report into the crash, released in 2015, recommended Transport Canada make child safety restraints mandatory for infants and children.

"If numerous tests have been conducted that indicate during such an event, a person is not capable of firmly holding on to a child and keeping the child safe, then why not implement the child safety seat?" Appaqaq says.

The twin-engine turboprop was en route from Winnipeg to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, in December 2012, when it crashed, killing six-month-old Isaac Andy Appaqaq, who was not secured to a seat. (Transportation Safety Board)

Transport Canada doesn't track how many children have been injured while travelling in their own airplane seat.

However, the risk is clearly stated on its website: children under age seven, or who are shorter than 125 cm, are not safe with the seatbelts provided by airlines. Instead, parents are advised to bring their own safety devices.

"There is a risk that the lap strap will slip into the child's abdominal region in the event of an accident or during turbulence, which could result in severe internal injuries," Transport Canada says in an advisory report.

Child seat prototype abandoned

In 1993, Transport Canada went so far as to commission a private company to design and develop a child safety restraint system to work on all types of commercial aircraft.

Despite the prototype almost making it to the final stages of development, the idea was abandoned.

Transport Canada won't say when that happened or why.

Aviation safety consultant Barbara Dunn calls Canada's child safety rules "abysmal."

"We're required to restrain coffee pots in the galley for takeoff and landing and for turbulence, but we're not required to restrain infants. That gives a lot of us pause for concern," says Dunn, who works with airlines and Transport Canada on safety issues.

Aviation safety consultant Barbara Dunn says Canada's rules around the safety of children and infants are 'abysmal.' (CBC)

She says one "stumbling block" is figuring out the economics of who would supply the child seatbelts and who would pay for the additional seat required to properly secure kids under age two.

A recent Transport Canada risk assessment found making child safety restraints mandatory could have "a high impact" on the health and safety of infants, but it also says the change could be "contentious" given the high cost to the airline industry — more than $10 million a year.

The other problem, Dunn says, is airlines want a child restraining device that would work and be approved for all models of airplanes here and abroad.

"It's one of the biggest pushback from the airlines."

In other parts of the world, including the European Union, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, infants and small children must be secured with supplemental loop belts known as belly belts that attach to an adult-sized seat, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

In North America, belly belts are not allowed and are considered dangerous.

Neither of Canada's biggest airlines have implemented mandatory restraint systems for children. They say they're following Transport Canada's rules.

"Our policies for child seating is in full compliance with all safety regulatory requirements," Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah told Go Public in an email.

WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart says the company is also following federal rules, and until regulatory changes are made, it will "continue to allow parents the option of how they fly with their infants."

Transport Canada's plans in early stages

Transport Canada declined to explain why it hasn't made child safety seats and restraints mandatory. It says it's doing an "in-depth examination of the issue" that's expected to be completed this fall, followed by public consultations.

It will also start airline industry consultations in October, and aims to increase the number of child restraint systems parents can use on Canadian airline flights that also are accepted on foreign flights.

In the meantime, Transport Canada encourages parents to bring their own approved child seats for infants and small children.

"Child restraint systems are the best option to ensure the safety of all onboard, especially in the event of turbulence or an accident," spokesperson Marie-Anyk Côté wrote in an email to Go Public.

On its website, Transport Canada encourages parents of children under two to buy an extra seat and secure the infant in an approved car seat.

With files from Rachel Ward

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About the Author

Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.


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