Former flight attendant Jan Brown on lifelong mission to ban lap infants on airplanes

Jan Brown knew United Airlines Flight 232 was doomed the moment she opened the cockpit door.

The flight attendant had heard an enormous bang minutes earlier.

An engine had exploded at 37,000 feet, between Denver and Chicago. Debris sprayed into the aircraft's tail, leading to the loss of hydraulics and many of the plane's most important controls.

As she walked through the cabin, Ms Brown reassured panicked passengers, telling them everything was fine.

But when she saw the pilots fighting to maintain control of the aircraft, she knew many of the 296 passengers were destined to die.

"I stepped in the cockpit and part of me just froze," Ms Brown said.

"It was obvious this was more than an emergency — the worst possible thing had happened."

Her crew swiftly jumped into action. Bags were stowed, seatbelts were fastened and even the coffee pot was locked down.

But among the passengers and crew were four "lap children" — infants under the age of two travelling on their parents' laps.

hey had no seat, no seatbelts and no way of being secured.

Ms Brown, following airline procedures, ordered the infants be put on the floor and cushioned with blankets and pillows before parents braced for the crash.

"I thought to myself, 'Jan I can't believe you're telling parents to put their most prized possession on the floor and hold them'," she said. "We were basically saying, 'let's hope for the best'.

"It was the most ludicrous thing I ever said in my life."

But lap children still fly today

More than 30 years have passed since the United Airlines flight went down, bursting into flames and breaking up on impact as it attempted a nearly impossible emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.

One hundred and eleven people died. Only the heroism of the pilots, flight attendants and rescue crews prevented the death toll from being much higher.

Three of the lap children survived with injuries. One ended up stuck in an overhead locker, another bounced back and forth between a seat and a wall.

But 22-month-old Evan Tsao died of smoke inhalation after being torn from his mother's arms by the force of the crash and flying into the back of the plane.

"Outside the wreckage, I saw Evan's mother," Ms Brown said.

"She was going back to the plane to search for him but it was too dangerous. I blocked her way.

"She looked up at me and said, 'you told me to put my baby on the floor and now he's gone'."

"I'm going to live with that for the rest of my life."

Ever since that horrific moment, Ms Brown has been on a crusade to ban infants from flying on their parents' laps.

But so far, it has not born fruit.

Today, thousands of babies and toddlers around the world, including in Australia, still fly without an allocated seat or safety harness, as authorities continue to debate the relative risk of plane travel.

The case to ban lap infants

In 1990, ten months after the UA232 disaster, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report urging authorities to do more to protect infants.

The NTSB suggested they all be given a spot on the plane and secured in a properly fitted car seat or specially made restraint.

It is still making the same case now.

"You have to put your laptop away for take-off and landing, yet we allow infants children to be held by their parents," NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

"That does not make sense."

Aviation experts often say safety legislation is written in blood.

Some believe the rules have not changed because a lap child has not died during an otherwise survivable crash in America since 1994.

"I hope it doesn't take another tragedy," Mr Sumwalt said.

"Parents would not get on the highway and hold their children in a car. Yet we see this all the time: people flying to Disney World and holding their children."

"I think some parents think because they are allowed to do it, then it must be safe."

Laws dealing with lap children vary around the world

In America, infants are not secured unless parents bring their own approved restraint.

In Australia and Europe, they are fastened with a supplementary belly belt which loops inside the adult's seatbelt.

"In severe turbulence, you will probably not be able to hold your child and they will fly through the plane, often straight up," Tom Gibson, a visiting professor at the University of Technology Sydney, said.

"So in turbulence, a belly belt — if it's done up very tight — could help."

But in a survivable crash situation — for example a plane landing very hard due to a mechanical problem or skidding off the runway — there's no hope of holding on to a baby. The g-forces will be far too great.

"In that situation, a belly belt is likely to be injurious. A child is likely to be crushed by the adult," Mr Gibson said.

"If the child comes loose or is not secured they will fly down the plane. Typically they hit their head."

In 2006, he modelled the effectiveness of car seats, the belly belt and off-the-shelf infant chest carriers, after receiving a grant from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

The results are clear from the crash test vision.

"A car restraint is probably the best way of carrying an infant on an aircraft," Mr Gibson said.

The American Academy of Paediatrics has long agreed.

In a 2016 review of plane injuries, it found lap infants are at a significantly higher risk of being hurt than children in car seats.

This is especially true in turbulence, which is predicted to become more common due to climate change, but also during meals.

The academy has suggested infant restraints could prevent more children from being burned by hot liquid, bumped by trolleys or falling from a sleeping parents' arms.

The case against banning lap infants

Around the world, regulatory bodies, do not dispute the evidence.

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have both recommend children be restrained in their own seat.

But they have resisted calls to ban lap infants.

The FAA argues changing the law would drive up the cost of travel for families because airlines would force them to buy an extra seat.

It says some people would choose to drive to their destination instead to save money, a much more dangerous method of transport.

Only one person has died in a commercial airline accident in the United States in the past decade, while roughly 100 people are killed each day on the nation's roads.

The FAA sent the ABC research suggesting that if just 5 per cent of families switched from air to road travel, there would be more deaths overall.

"For every child under two saved by a regulation (one every 10 years), a minimum of 60 lives would be lost on the highways," the FAA stated during a presentation in 2010.

Travel groups want airlines to act

Most major airlines, including Qantas and Virgin Australia, allow car restraints on planes.

Some will even try to allocate a spare seat, cost free, to a family if requested at check-in.

But parents have to bring their own safety harness and not all car seats are compatible.

Some consumer groups think airlines should educate families about the potential risk to lap infants when they book.

The president of the largest travellers' consumer group in the US, Charlie Leocha, says there "needs to be a much better system for accommodating infants and making sure everyone on board is as safe as possible".

"But it should not cost more," he said.

Jan Brown is still fighting for change

More than three decades on from the terrifying crash that changed her life, Ms Brown remains undeterred in her campaign for change.

She has given speeches across America, testified to the US Congress and become very well known in the US airline industry.

"As we crashed and rolled over, I was engulfed by a flash fire that moved through the cabin," Ms Brown said, reflecting on that fateful day. "I said my goodbyes. It was very peaceful."

"But this is why I feel I survived. It was very clear that God wanted me to do this, it's my mission."

Ms Brown still hopes that one day she will see new safety legislation forcing lap infants to be banned.

If that does happen, she hopes the bill will have Evan's name on it.

"That's what I can do for Evan to make sure he's not forgotten," she said.
"I'll be doing this for the rest of my life."


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