Is it safe to hold your baby on a flight? Boeing blowout stokes fears.

When a loud banging erupted on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Friday and a hole in the plane’s wall suddenly revealed the night sky and buildings below, few people understood what was unfolding. The cockpit door had swung open, the aircraft was rapidly depressurizing and the flight’s first officer was jerked forward, losing her headset.

The accident started when the door plug in the plane’s main body blew out, causing frigid, roaring winds to overtake the cabin. Flight attendants quickly turned their attention to four unaccompanied minors and three additional small children they knew were on the plane without a seat, according to accounts relayed by Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“They didn’t know what was occurring. They were certainly concerned,” Homendy said Monday, citing interviews with flight attendants, which she described as “very emotional.”

“This was a really significant event with zero information at the time. There is a lot of trauma that they are working through,” she said.

Pilots safely carried out an emergency landing of the plane, a Boeing 737 Max 9, and the accident has prompted an NTSB investigation.

At least twice during news conferences this week, the NTSB has stressed that both it and the Federal Aviation Administration recommend that parents or guardians buy separate seats for infants on flights instead of holding them in their laps. The FAA does not require plane tickets for children under 2, and some adults might skip purchasing a separate seat to save money or avoid the headache of finding approved child aviation restraint system devices, which include some car seats and harnesses.

Still, aviation experts say there’s no confusion about what’s safe.


“If there had been a passenger holding a kid close to where that panel blew off, the explosive force was such that a kid being held would have been torn from the hands of their parents, and they would have been sucked out the plane,” said Kwasi Adjekum, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Aviation. “The practice of holding kids on your lap, especially for takeoff and other vulnerable phases of flight - it’s highly frowned upon and discouraged.”

In the days following the plane’s emergency landing, two cellphones, a seat headrest, a window frame and stray parts were found scattered in residential areas. Experts say that easily could have happened to any adult who wasn’t wearing a seat belt or any child - especially small children.

“A kid in a car or passenger vehicle below a certain weight - they have to be in a car seat. So why would a parent be allowed to hold a kid in their lap on a commercial flight?” said Anthony Brickhouse, an aerospace safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “That, to me, is just a gap in the system. And unfortunately, in safety, a lot of times, changes aren’t made until there’s a tragedy.”

Yet tragedies have already occurred. In 1989, a United Airlines flight crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people. At least one child being held on a lap died on the flight, and three other infants were injured after attendants told parents to bundle them in blankets and place them on the floor. In 1995, an infant girl also died after a parent followed similar instructions ahead of a crash in Charlotte. Those two accidents have fueled calls for a change in regulations.

Unrestrained children may not fall out of an aircraft, but they could still be injured or killed during sudden changes in speed, severe turbulence or accidents. The No. 1 cause of pediatric injuries on airplanes is unexpected turbulence, according to the FAA.

“It’s basic physics. If something isn’t properly restrained and that vehicle rapidly deaccelerates, that something is going to want to keep moving,” Brickhouse said.

For years, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the American Academy of Pediatrics have advocated for the FAA - which sets rules for flight safety - to require guardians to secure infants and toddlers. But some have argued that doing so would make air travel more expensive for families and push them to drive cars instead.

“The argument is that, statistically, there are more fatalities driving with kids than flying with kids,” Adjekum said.

In other parts of the world, some airlines require that parents use a belly loop belt for infants, which is secured around the child’s abdomen and then tethered to the guardian’s seat belt. This restraint device is banned by the FAA, with some research suggesting that the belt may still allow infants to hit the seat in front of them or get crushed by the adult if they’re jerked forward. Adjekum said U.S. regulators were also concerned that the belts would slow down the evacuation of planes because they can be difficult to detach.

“Think of the recent Japanese accident. The rule is that, within 90 seconds, we are supposed to evacuate the aircraft,” he said, referring to a collision in Tokyo this month between a Japan Airlines aircraft and a Coast Guard plane. “It adds to the complexity because that child is now tethered to the parent and is a potential obstruction hazard” to other passengers, he added.

Many car seats can be used as airplane restraint devices, so long as the tag says they meet aviation safety standards, Adjekum said. However, the FAA warns that counterfeits of approved devices are frequently for sale online and suggests that consumers purchase directly from manufacturers.