In December 2011 Steve and I traveled to America with our sons Oliver (3) and Ethan (1). I want to share some our experiences with others, in particular in traveling with a child seat on a plane, with the hope of making the process a bit easier for someone else.
We booked our flights with Virgin Australia and purchased a seat for our 1 year old as well as our 3 year old. Having traveled to America with Virgin two years earlier (with Oliver who was then 1 year old) I was keen to take a car seat on board the plane again this time (for Ethan to sit in) – however this process was much more tedious than expected.
Virgin Australia require a one year old to be restrained during the parts of the flight, either on a parent’s lap, in a Care’s harness or in an approved car seat. They publish their requirements for car seats on board here:
Since I last traveled with Virgin in 2009, the required car seat standards have changed significantly and they now pose some significant problems. The key issues with taking a car seat on board a Virgin flight to America are as follows:
- The car seat must comply with United States FAA design standard FMVSS No. 213
- Seats that comply with Australian design standard AS/NZS 1754 are currently unsuitable for carriage on Virgin Australia aircraft, as they require a top tether in addition to the fastened lap belt to secure the three-point attachment.
I have done the research and can tell you that it is impossible to purchase a car seat in Australia that does NOT comply with the Australian Standard. I also found that no Australian car seats contain the necessary markings to confirm that they are FAA approved. It is also very difficult to purchase a car seat in America and get it shipped to Australia because of it’s bulky size (and I tried contacting ToysRus and other US baby ware shops + eBay).
I made several calls to Virgin Australia to ask them for a solution and none of the phone operators had any idea. I was initially advised to contact car manufacturers regarding baby seats (silly suggestion) and the only semi-useful information I could get out of one of them was to look at the brand “Safe-n-Sound”. So I did a lot of research on this and I found that Safe-n-Sound (Britax) in Australia are able to issue a letter to confirm that their car seats are compliant with the FAA requirements. And I could remove the tether strap to make it not comply with the Australian standards (as the airline wouldn’t allow a tether strap). I was all ready to purchase the Safe-n-Sound Compaq car seat and then I realised that the width of their smallest car seat is 44cm and Virgin Australia requests the car seat to not exceed 40.6cm (16 inches).
So I was back at square one and now I only had about 8 days until we left on our trip.
Yet I was so determined to find a solution because I really really didn’t want Ethan on my lap for the whole plane trip and I could just envisage getting him comfortable in an adult seat and then the fasten seat belt sign would require me to move him back to my lap. Plus it wouldn’t give me any time to assist with Oliver on the trip, not to mention get any rest myself.
So my next step was to go around to all the shops that sell car seats and find the narrowest car seat around. Most car seats are no where near narrow enough to meet Virgin’s requirement and the first one I found was a dead end, however I did find one at Target that was only marginally over the requirement. It was the Hipod Milan car seat.
I contacted Hipod by calling the number on their website and then asked to see if they could give me a letter to confirm it’s approval with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). After a few days they advised that they could give me the letter! Yay, after weeks of agonizing and worrying about having a 1 year old on my lap for a 13 hour flight, I finally had a solution!
I bought the car seat, advised Virgin Australia via phone that I would be taking it on board and that I had the letter and from there everything went fairly smoothly. The staff at the check in counter did take the car seat and the letter and discussed it for a few minutes before letting us proceed with check in. Strangely enough though, on our three US domestic flights no one cared in the least about us taking a car seat on board. When we flew home to Australia with Virgin Australia we were a bit more relaxed about getting on board with the car seat (even forgot to mention it when we were boarding) but, good old Virgin staff did quiz us over it, check there was no tether strap and take the Hipod letter to their cabin supervisor to check!
All in all my efforts to find a solution paid off. Ethan even slept for 9 out of the 13 hour flight home in his car seat which I was very happy about.
So if anyone else is flying Virgin and looking for a car seat option, I can highly recommend the Hipod car seat + accompanying letter. And for the record, Oliver was restrained in a Cares Harness which was a great safe option for his age.