Know Your Rights Amid Airline Chaos: What Are the Rules for Flying With Babies and Young Children?

Even the airlines seem confused.

By now, you've probably heard the viral story of the Delta passengers bumped from an overbooked flight with their two toddlers... and told they'd go to jail and lose their kids unless they complied. Not a good look for the airline during a tough time for domestic airlines' customer-service reputations.

However, although staff may have showed spectacular misjudgment in their handling of the situation, they may not have technically been wrong: The Schear family had bought the seat for their teenage son but had instead sent him home on an earlier flight. Then, they decided to give his seat to one of their toddlers so that he could sleep on the five-hour flight from Maui to California. Turns out that if you fly Delta, you can't just give away a seat to someone else, even if you bought it. The FAQ section on the airline's website states: "All tickets are non-transferable per the fare rules. Name changes are not permitted." That's in spite of a Transportation Security Administration spokesman saying that federal regulations do not bar such a switch as long as the new passenger’s name can be run through a database. Seems there are a few areas where the airlines play by their own rules.

But if you're looking for a summary of the rules and regulations for flying with kids in more typical situations, start here:

1.  Do Children Need ID for Domestic Flights?

Per the TSA website: "TSA does not require children under 18 to provide identification when traveling with a companion within the United States." So how did Delta even know that the toddler was not the same person as the ticketholder? The TSA adds that airlines may take a different approach: "Contact the airline for questions regarding specific ID requirements for travelers under 18." So, we guess you can file this under "it depends."

2.  When Do Children Need to Have Their Own Seats?

If your kids are under two years, they do not need to have their own seats; they can sit in your lap without a ticket — though that's limited to one child per lap. Confusingly, though, an airline employee told the Schear family that their one-year-old child could not use the car seat he was seated in, saying that he needed to be in the arms of an adult the whole time, citing Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Yet, the FAA website states that "the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap. Your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence." It goes on to strongly urge you "to secure your child in a CRS or device for the duration of your flight. It's the smart and right thing to do so that everyone in your family arrives safely at your destination." So, on this point, the airline was dead wrong. But, then, when you have someone threatening you with jail, it's tough to argue.

3.  Where Can Lap Children Sit?

Should you decide to travel with your child in your lap, it is also worth bearing in mind that there are restrictions on where you can sit on the plane. Delta has a good run-down at its website. You can't sit in aisle seats, emergency exit rows, any seat one row forward or one row back from an emergency exit row, bulkhead seats when the safety seat is a combination car seat and stroller, and flat-bed seats in the Delta One area of specific aircraft since the airbag seat belt cannot be deactivated.

Note to families traveling with infant twins, or others in situations with multiple lap children in a single party: Consider that you will need to have enough oxygen masks for everyone in a row, whether or not they are in their own seats. And that means lap children — and their adult laps — may have to split up across multiple rows.

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