WASHINGTON – Deborah Hersman, departing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday that “one of her great disappointments” was that child-safety seats aren’t required on planes for young children.
During a farewell speech at the National Press Club after 10 years on the board, Hersman recalled the different outcomes for two children aboard United Flight 232, which crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa. The crash killed 185 people, and 111 survived.
Two sets of parents with small children were told to brace for impact by placing infants on the floor cushioned with blankets.
The plane approached the runway at 240 mph, cartwheeled and caught on fire, and parents were unable to find the children when evacuating. A passenger heard an 11-month-old girl crying and carried her out.
“Those mothers couldn’t hold onto their babies,” Hersman said. “Nobody could have.”
She was joined on the dais by Jan Brown, a flight attendant who blocked a parent from going back into the burning plane to look for her 22-month-old son, who died of asphyxiation from the smoke. Brown has lobbied for 25 years to require child-safety seats for children on planes, but the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t adopted that recommendation.
Federal regulations allow parents to hold children up to 2 years old in their laps on flights. The NTSB urged the FAA to develop regulations for restraining all children during takeoff, landing and turbulence, putting children weighing up to 40 pounds in child-restraint systems approved for their height and weight.
“When I came on the board in 2004, it was almost unbelievable that that was still allowed to go on,” Hersman said of unbelted children on airliners, in contrast to state laws requiring child-safety seats in cars. “They’re just as valuable in the airplane as they are in the car.”
She is leaving the NTSB to become head of the National Safety Council, where she hopes to continue advocating on a broad range of safety issues.
The FAA recommends — rather than requires — that a child weighing less than 20 pounds use a rear-facing child restraint system. A forward-facing child-safety seat should be used for children weighing 20 to 40 pounds. The FAA has approved one harness-type device for children weighing 22 to 44 pounds.
When purchasing plane tickets, parents and caregivers should contact the airline to see if discounts are available for children because buying a ticket for a child is the only way to guarantee that a child-safety seat can be used during flight.
Airlines say parents and caregivers should check before flying to make sure their child restraint is approved for use on aircraft.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines worldwide, will hold a workshop in May on cabin safety that will include a panel about governments coordinating standards for which child-safety restraints are permissible on planes.
Hersman emphasized that transportation is very safe. She said safety improvements since the Sioux City crash helped limit the deaths to three in the crash-landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco in July 2013.
Technology to avoid aviation collisions and to warn pilots when they are too close to the ground has prevented crashes where people have failed, Hersman said, but safety always can be improved.
•For cars, she said, manufacturers have collision-avoidance technology and automation for brakes and cruise control. She said such technology must be installed on more than the most expensive vehicles.
•Hersman said more people travel on buses each year than on planes. She said regulators and the industry must weed out bad companies to reduce the number of crashes.
•For railroads, the NTSB will hold a two-day hearing Tuesday and Wednesday to review rail safety as more oil is shipped by train. She said common tanker cars aren’t designed to haul hazardous materials.
“We’ve got to get on top of it,” Hersman said. “We aren’t prepared.”