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Twenty seven years ago almost to the day, a mother held her 22-month-old son on her lap, assuming that if it was allowed then it was safe. It was July 19, 1989, and the day was golden. The crew anticipated a smooth and speedy last leg to Chicago and looked forward to some days off. Then everyone's nightmare erupted when an engine exploded.
Flight attendants attend emergency training every year and hope they will never use it. This time, the crew – myself included – put our emergency procedures into action. We instructed the passengers as we were trained: seatbelts tight, brace position, personal items stowed, brace signal and assist passengers. As I was trained to do, I instructed parents to place their lap children on the floor, to hold them as best they could, and in essence to 'hope for the best.' As I did this, a realization came to me about the ludicrousness of the lap child policy.
The plane crashed in Iowa with unimaginable force, careened down the runway and broke into three sections; the mid-section where I was seated had flipped over and caught fire before coming to rest in a cornfield. I was knocked unconscious, but came to and got people out before thick deadly smoke forced me to leave the wreckage. The first person I met was the mother of that 22-month-old boy.
She was attempting to return to the wreckage, and I was the one who blocked her path as she tried running back to look for her baby. She told me she had to look for her son and I replied that there were people who would find him. She looked straight at me and reminded me that I had told her to place her baby on the floor and that it would be alright – but he was gone.
In that cornfield, I realized why I had survived: I was securely belted in, a protection unavailable to some of the children aboard the flight. While a plane crash is rare, severe turbulence can and has torn children from their parents' grasp and slammed them into ceilings, walls, floors, and seats with incredible force.
I was unable to provide safety for all passengers on that fateful day in 1989, but I am able to fight for safety for our youngest passengers today. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends on its website that travelers under 2 years old have their own seats, but that isn't enough. The FAA needs to end the practice of lap children in commercial aviation and mandate that children under age 2 be safely seated in an FAA-approved child-safety restraint seat or system.
After all, if the law requires children to be buckled into a safe seat in a car traveling 50 miles an hour, shouldn't children be as well protected on planes going 500 mph?