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Flying with kids: Do parents have rights?

June 1, 2012 at 11:49 AM ET

With the summer travel season in full swing, parents are preparing to journey the skies with little ones. But as the headlines have reported in recent months, the skies are hardly friendly, especially if you’ve got a fussy toddler who refuses to buckle up on the runway. More airlines are taking harsh measures and kicking people off planes.

Can they really do that?

This week there was yet another story about a pilot booting an antsy kid (and his family) from a flight, because the 3-year-old wouldn’t fasten his seatbelt for take off.

According to reports, Alaska Airlines said it was a matter of safety, and that they wanted to deal with “the issue” on the ground rather than in mid-air. But the boy’s father, Mark Yanchak told the local press that the crew was over-reacting-- and that eventually he did get his son settled down, but the pilot had already ordered their plane back to the gate.

So, what are the rules when it comes to airline travel and your children, and what, exactly, are your rights as a parent when you board that plane?

IDs for kids: what's the story?

Let’s start at the beginning: the ticket/check-in counter. Do kids need IDs, birth certificates or other types of documentation?

Officially, no.

“Typically documentation for people under the age of 18 is not required if they are traveling with an adult inside of the country,” explains Ross F. Aimer, a retired United Airlines captain with over 30 years of experience, and the CEO of Aero Consulting Experts.

But— and it’s a big but— every airline gets to make up their own ID requirements for kids traveling domestically, and they certainly can ask you for a birth certificate if they want to. So it’s best to play it safe this summer, and contact the specific carrier before your trip to make sure you’ve got whatever paperwork they might need at the counter. Flying internationally is more clear-cut. The FAA requires a passport for every passenger, regardless of age.

How young is too young to fly?

While the law allows newborns to fly, some airlines restrict flights for babies under two weeks (again, check before you book those tickets!), and some doctors take a more cautionary approach for very young infants.

Dr. Cynthia Mann, a pediatrician in Hamden, Conn., says her practice doesn’t recommend air travel for babies under two months of age. “As the air from the entire plane is circulated in the cabin, young infants are exposed to all of the viruses on board.” And what might be a run-of-the-mill fever for an older baby, she explains, will likely require hospitalization for a 6-week old since pediatricians handle fevers in infants under two months very conservatively.

The final word on seatbelt-gate

According to the FAA, children under two years of age may travel as lap children. Kids over 2 need their own seat, and must either wear the plane’s lap belt or sit in an approved child-safety restraint that meets the FAA’s specific requirements found here.

What happens if your child won’t settle down and buckle up for take off? They absolutely can be bounced from the plane like any other passenger, a spokesperson for the FAA explained. It’s entirely the pilot’s call.

Susan Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and an aviation safety professional, explains that any commotion in the passenger area can be extremely disruptive to a pilot, “especially during take off when you do not want the pilot distracted by anything.”

Parents may have rights, she says, but so does the child and all the other people on board. They have a right to a safe flight.

Know the law...in case they don't

But what are you supposed to do if you’ve done all of your homework ahead of time, and the airline doesn’t know what’s up? That’s exactly what happened to Clare Bever, a mother traveling alone with her 18-month-old son on a flight home to Baltimore on a national airline.

“I did everything I could to make sure I was complying with all of their policies,” she explains. "I read the rules ... about where car seats were allowed and picked seats two rows behind the emergency exit.”

While children are never permitted in an exit row, that airline's website states that an approved child-safety restraint is prohibited in rows directly in front of or behind the emergency exit — but two rows is perfectly fine.

“The flight attendants didn’t know their own rule and told us we had to move,” Clare says. “They were fighting between themselves about whether it was one or two rows.” After a few minutes, she decided it was better to just unhook her child and do whatever the flight attendants wanted. As she puts it: “They hold all the power in the situation.”

Former airline captain Aimer’s advice to parents: Come armed with the facts. “People should print out the airline’s policies or the rules on the FAA’s site and bring an article like this one about what is actually the law when it comes to flying with kids.”

Jacoba Urist is a lawyer, writer and mom in manhattan. Her writing has appeared on MSN Money, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and The Atlantic. She received her JD and her LL.M. Masters in Taxation from NYU School of Law. Follow her on twitter @TheHappiestPare

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