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Why I’ll never fly with a car seat again

My family and I have done more than a fair share of long-haul flights since our children were born. We have relatives all over the US and around the world from Germany to Israel, and I’ve flown for my job as an opera singer to destinations as far as Anchorage, Montreal, and Beijing. Now that we have three little ones, my husband and I have had more than a few discussions about what to do about car seats and flights.

We have had really bad luck with rental car seats most of the time (think: dirty, flimsy, food-covered!). And we’ve also been lucky enough to be able to mostly meet family on the other end of our long haul flights.  We always ask friends and family for borrowed car seats for us for the duration of our visit. So I have been pretty happy that in 5.5 years I haven’t once taken a car seat on an airplane. 

That all changed with a short last minute trip from Dallas to Denver on Memorial Day Weekend. We decided that we would ‘risk’ the baby car seat from the rental since- how gross can those be before babies actually start eating in them? Even still, I felt like I was betraying the entire Facebook group of thousands of parents who read “Car Seats for Littles” by not taking the baby’s own car seat. We took a booster and a car seat for our 5.5 and 3 year old. We also borrowed a GoGoBabyz trolly- the one that you can attach to make the car seat act like a ‘roll on’.

I pride myself on my packing skills and so we managed to fly with ONLY carry-on bags with Frontier airlines for a family of 5 for 4 days. We had a rolling duffle, a backpack and diaper bag for me, my husband’s backpack, and two small backpacks that the kids wore, an UppaBabyGluxe (our go-to-travel stroller..we’ve had it for over 5 years!), the baby in the Bjorn, the booster seat tied to our duffle, and… THE CAR SEAT. OH THAT CAR SEAT!

Heavy, bulky, tedious- doesn’t even come close to describing the experience. My three year old enjoyed his ride on the GoGoBabyz roller so much he decided he didn’t need to walk at ALL, ANYWHERE in Colorado- even when we didn’t have the car seat roller with us. We thought we could use the booster on the airplane but turns out that little piece of plastic was not FAA approved, so that had to be ‘gate-checked’ with our stroller. We lugged the car seat with the roller onboard- hit every single arm rest on the way to row 17, and then had to be stealthily quick in setting it up so the rest of the flight could board. Of course here my green thumb of car-seat installation on airplanes truly showed- my husband put our 5 year old near the window and the car seat in the middle so he could stretch his legs in the aisle. It’s secure, tight- great. 

JUST after the captain turned on the seatbelt signs and we were about to taxi to the runway, the flight attendant came through and told us the seat should be in the window, not the middle. Of course my husband began to fiddle with it (which required standing) and at the same time was directed to sit down.

Things went downhill from there. Apparently even though it takes the skills of a circus contortionist to install most car seats– pulling, tugging, pushing, weaving- trying to get the tightest fit possible– you should NOT pull the airline seat belt buckle as tightly as possible through the car-seat opening- why not? Because the buckle requires a few inches of recoil in order to be released! And guess what? We didn’t have those few inches (thanks to my husband dutifully pulling as tightly as possible to install the seat). He spent almost the entire 2 hour flight trying to find some more ‘give’ in the lap-belt. No-go. He then realized that the entire seat belt can be disassembled from the other side and not just the latch by a metal hook and eye type of contraption, and searched for that same metal tab in the middle seat.

How did my 3 year old like his car seat? Well- he certainly loved having his feet be SO much closer to the head of the person sitting in front of us…we had to constantly remind him not to kick accidentally. He couldn’t touch the buttons on the side of the arm-rest (a plus for us, a minus for him), and overall- he didn’t sleep like we thought he might (and what everyone says will happen when you lug car seats on airplanes!)

When we landed we knew there was no way we’d be able to get off of the plane with the car seat and all of us and our bags AND the now detached GoGoBabyz, so we had to let everyone off in front of us (which neither my 5 year old nor my 3 year old were very happy with after 2 plus hours of close quarters), and then we had to do a scramble in front of the flight attendants who wanted to get out of the aircraft as much as we did so the cleaning crew could come through before the next boarding time.  

When we finally stepped off of the plane, my husband and I looked at each other and immediately understood – nope, no car seats again.

I remember as a child making transatlantic flights with my parents without any car seats. We often we just made tents with blankets and pillows to sleep on the floor. My parents were never asked to wake their sleeping children because of FAA safety regulations (something I’ve been asked on numerous flight with the baby finally asleep in the bassinet row or the kids happily snoozing at my feet in a blanket). Of course, anyone can make the valid argument that flying has become safer and regulations have become understandably tougher- we don’t smoke on airplanes anymore, seat belt safety is a must instead of walking around and visiting the captain, etc.

But for now, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about car seats on airplanes!

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