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Considerations when flying with the family

November 2, 2009

If flying is the second greatest thrill known to man (landing being the first), then flying with a loving spouse and the kids must be number three. Using an airplane for its designed purpose—to get from point A to point B—with the entire family is a joy that ground-pounders can’t comprehend and aren’t lucky enough to experience. But before you blast off to grandmother’s house, take some time to consider the ways in which flying with many vastly differs from flying by yourself.

Take a moment to re-member what car trips were like when you were young and single, or even young and married, and what they became when junior arrived, and you’ll start to understand how different flying with the family will be. There are safety considerations, hearing protection issues, ear and sinus precautions to be taken—and, of course, there will be no more of the “I’ll-pull-this-car-over-right-now” routine.

Taking a stress-free flight with the family begins with proper planning at home. If your kids are very young, make sure to have pacifiers, bottles, toys, and lots of blankets. The toys are for obvious reasons. Keeping little ones occupied in the airplane can be a challenge, although it’s often easier than in the car because most kids seem to sleep in airplanes. The blankets are important. Airplanes can be quite cold, and the heaters never work as well as we’d like, especially in the back seat. And if you have to land off airport, they could literally be a lifesaver. For older kids, bring their favorite games, videos, or music. If the view doesn’t hold their interest, the Nintendo will.

Plan for some extra time at the airport to get everyone settled. With younger children, you’ll also want to leave time for the most critical thing you’ll be bringing along—the car seat. Do not leave this key piece of safety equipment at home or in the car. Most car seats strap easily into airplane seats. However, there can be some challenges. Our family once had a problem strapping a forward-facing car seat into the aft seats of a Beechcraft Bonanza. The Bonanza’s buckle was right on the plastic channel where the seatbelt feeds through. But we found that installing the seat in a rear-facing position on the rear-facing middle seats (which thus had the baby facing forward) worked great. You can start to see why this takes time.

Just as the airlines require an FAA-approved car seat, so too must you have one in your airplane. This is according to FAR 91.107. The regulation says the seat must have a sticker indicating it is safe for use in both cars and airplanes. But not to worry because most seats manufactured today meet the standard. Interestingly, the FAA prohibited the use of booster seats on airliners years ago, finding that the occupant of the seat behind the child in the booster seat would exert too much force on the seatback, causing a very unsafe condition for the child. Keep in mind that most booster seats which use the automobile seat belts to secure the child do not provide sufficient restraint without an accompanying shoulder belt—which could be an issue if your airplane doesn’t have them.

Where’s the safest place to put the seat? No one has researched the question, but common sense should prevail. If you put your infant in a rear-facing car seat in the back of the car, do the same in the airplane. And, although airplanes without airbags would seem to indicate a child seat could go in the front, consider that many backseat passengers survive accidents where the pilot doesn’t. Besides, a young passenger could distract the pilot—and those little feet and hands can reach farther than you might think.

If you absolutely have to leave the car seat at home, a good alternative is a harness device called CARES ( www.kidsflysafe.com). CARES is a restraint that loops over the seatback at the top and through the lap belt on the bottom. Then a buckle in the middle completes a system that resembles just the restraint portion of a standard car seat.

If you have a Cessna 172 but want to bring your spouse and three small kids, the FAA issued a letter of interpretation a few years ago that said two children can occupy one seat belt, provided their combined weight doesn’t exceed 170 pounds.

Once junior is strapped in, it’s time to put on his hearing protection. Don’t think it’s necessary? Consider the advice of Dr. Terese Huber, an audiologist specializing in pediatrics. “Just that one time you don’t wear the protection can be the contributing factor to hearing loss,” she said. Huber explained that just because you may have learned to fly without a headset, it doesn’t mean your children should be exposed to the pounding drone of the engine and propeller. “When considering the hearing damage of your young child, the important numbers to remember are 85 and 110. These are the decibel levels at which prolonged exposure and one-time exposure, respectively, will cause damage.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration first set the 85- and 110-dB standards in the mid-1970s after years of research. Huber said she thinks the decibel standards are set at too high a level and said children were never studied. The research indicated that the point at which permanent hearing damage can occur depends on both the amount of sound and the time the subject was exposed to it. So although 85 dB is a good guideline, it’s not the full story. For every three dB of increase in sound, the exposure time is cut in half. At 91 dB—a more realistic level found in most general aviation airplanes—the maximum time of exposure one can handle without damage is only two hours. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to determine a decibel level for every airplane type because each airplane will vary depending on modifications since coming from the factory. Even placement in the cabin can make a difference. In the Bonanza I referenced above, an inexpensive meter showed a range of more than five dB between the front and back of the cabin, not to mention the floor and ceiling.

The only way to eliminate the threat of hearing loss for children is to protect their ears on every flight. That’s easy when the child gets to be close to two years; companies such as David Clark, Peltor, and others sell child headsets. But for a younger child, you have to get creative.

Interesting ideas for infant hearing protection run the gamut from cotton and a headband to keep it in, to massive ear protectors meant for gun shooting. The cotton approach seems to stay on the child’s head, which is always a concern, but the protection isn’t that great. Peltor makes a small circumaural set of earphones that are inexpensive and very light, and fit children as young as just a few months old. The earphones are rated to decrease sound by only 22 dB, but that should bring it down into the safe range. You can purchase the Peltor earphones online ( www.enviro safetyproducts.com). There are also small earplugs called earPlanes that can be purchased at most drug stores. These are similar to the small foam earplugs seen at airports around the country, except that they do a much better job of staying in place. Whether your son or daughter will be agreeable to them is another matter.

Huber recommends an even better solution that costs more, but is also more likely to stay in, and filters out more sound. Audiologists can make custom ear plugs that will cut as much as 30 dB, but cost around $100. Whatever you do, Huber said, make sure the hearing protection allows the child to clear his or her ears. The custom earplugs, for example, come with and without filters. Unless you want to help the child clear her ears on climbs and descents by slightly tweaking the earplug out of place, you’ll want a set with filters. Making sure your child clears his or her ears is very important.

What a pain

Dr. Gary Eberle, a former board member of the Flying Physicians Association, said that clearing the child’s ears is important to prevent damage. “The Eustachian tube is normally closed,” Eberle said. “But as you climb or descend in the airplane, the tube needs to open to equalize the pressure. If that doesn’t happen, it can cause great discomfort or even a ruptured tympanic membrane, or eardrum.” That’s why we yawn, swallow, or chew gum during climbs or descents. As Eberle points out, it’s hard to teach some adults to clear their ears, much less children. Help babies do this by letting them suck on a bottle or pacifier; give bigger kids gum or teach them to yawn during this time. “The best thing you can do is keep climbs and descents to less than 500 feet per minute,” Eberle said.

For infants and young toddlers, another consideration is ear infections. Because the Eustachian tube is smaller and more horizontal in young children, they are more susceptible to fluid retention and resulting infections. Fluid in the tube will cause it to swell, which makes it difficult to clear, as anyone with a cold can confirm. Just as you wouldn’t fly with a cold, don’t subject your kids to that discomfort. Some children, however, rarely show ear-infection symptoms. If you’re concerned, get them checked out by a doctor or buy a home kit where you can check for swelling yourself. Not doing so is a safety concern for your child and the flight once you’re hit with the distraction.

Now that you’re at the airport with all your gear, strapped in and ready to go, there’s only one thing left to do—brief your precious cargo. While adults can presumably understand not to touch anything, kids don’t have that same mindset. One AOPA member tells the story of his granddaughter who was pulling the plastic off the emergency exit window of his Piper Aztec before her brother noticed and alerted him. Doors and emergency window exits need to be discussed in advance, and toddlers in car seats need to be seated far enough away so as not to be able to open either.

Once all the preparations are made and you are sure the family is healthy and ready to go, actually being in the airplane is not that much different from a road trip. The lack of easy rest stops and the need to pay close attention to the airplane, are two exceptions, however.

Most pilots agree that flying with children can be a wonderful experience that opens up the entire country to personal transportation. And while you’ll be up half the night preparing drinks, snacks, games, books, music, and toys before the trip, your child is likely to fall asleep before takeoff. Oh, and don’t forget the sick sacks.

E-mail the author at ian.twombly@aopa.org.
Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.