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What the FAA gets right about airplane regulation

Regulators need to take in the whole picture of risk — as they do with air travel — rather than just a narrow slice.

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max-9 aircraft
An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max-9 aircraft grounded at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, on January 8, 2024.
Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

The sight of a hole in the side of a Boeing 737 Max airplane earlier this month resurrected, among other questions, an old debate: Is it really a good idea to hold your baby in your arms when you fly?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly recommends that you get a separate, secured seat for even a very young child below the age of 2 — but they haven’t banned the practice of carrying your child on your lap in your own seat.

As the FAA comes under (justified) fire for being too lenient about increasing signs of lax practices and problems at Boeing, I’ve seen this policy criticized. “A kid being held would have been torn from the hands of their parents, and they would have been sucked out the plane,” aviation safety expert Kwasi Adjekum told the Washington Post, referring to what happened to Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on January 5. The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly recommended that the FAA ban lap children.

But I actually want to go to bat for the FAA here — I think their policy of advising against “lap children” but not banning them gets exactly right a really important, frequently neglected aspect of regulation. And it’s one other regulatory agencies could learn from.

Regulation and our notion of responsibility

Say I’m a regulator responsible for an environmental impact review of a new apartment building in a major city. It’s my job to consider the impact of the apartment building on local sewage and water supplies and drainage, carbon emissions, local wildlife, sunlight and shade effects, and lots more — in California, an environmental impact analysis must consider 18 different factors.

But here’s one factor that doesn’t get considered: If the apartment doesn’t get built because of one or more of those 18 environmental factors, where will the people who would have lived there live instead? Often, the answer is “in distant suburbs” — and building there instead of a denser city will put far greater stress on the water supply and emit vastly more carbon dioxide.

Or consider a safety review for a nuclear power plant. It considers the risk to the residents of the surrounding area from a nuclear meltdown — but it does not consider how power will be produced if the nuclear power plant isn’t built. Should coal plants be built instead, they’ll kill far more people, chiefly through far greater levels of air pollution.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised the first time I read the FAA’s justification for not banning “lap children” on airplanes. While the FAA thinks it’s safer to buy a separate seat for your baby than to travel with them on your lap, the agency expects that if this were to be mandated, it would dramatically raise the price of flying for families with young children. Some of those families will choose to drive instead.

And do you know what’s wildly more dangerous than flying? Driving. “For every child under two saved by a regulation (1 every ten years), a minimum of 60 lives would be lost on the highways,” one 2010 presentation by the FAA argued.

In fact, because flying is now so amazingly safe, even if this second-order effect were very small, it would overwhelm the direct effect of saving lives by making children on planes safer. The NTSB tracks fatal incidents on planes, including both flights with a “part 121 certificate” — the big commercial airliners we’re all familiar with — and flights without it. Since 2010, there has been a grand total of one fatality on a part-121 US carrier flight. (The smaller private planes still have more frequent fatalities.)

Meanwhile, some 42,000 people died in car crashes in 2021 alone. So if airplane safety rules make people more likely to drive instead of flying, they are almost certainly putting travelers in more danger.

Regulators need to see the whole picture

I want to emphasize again that it’s deeply unusual for the FAA to take this into account at all. Most regulatory agencies don’t consider such concerns in-scope: Their job is to prevent incidents in their department, nothing more.

But, of course, good regulatory policy absolutely requires taking this sort of broad perspective. Whenever we approve or fail to approve a power plant, that affects whether other plants get built or keep running. When we engage in exclusionary zoning, or shortsighted development policy, the costs aren’t just paid in a few city blocks but across the whole country and potentially the whole world.

Regulations are written in blood, and nowhere is that more true than the aviation industry, where nearly every element of the flying experience today — from the lights that guide you to exit rows to the safety briefing to the redundant mechanical systems that keep the plane in the air — was crafted only in the aftermath of tragedy.

But it’s also easy, when regulations are written in blood, to just keep writing them, and forget that our regulations have trade-offs, that harm reduction is also a public policy priority, and that sometimes the best thing to do is not to mandate but to advise.

If you can afford it, getting a separate seat for your child, and an FAA-approved child restraint system, is the safest way to fly. But I think the fact it’s not the only legal way to fly is a symptom of a healthy attitude about safety — that it has to be pursued relentlessly, but with an eye for the big picture and a reminder that cheap, reliable commercial aviation is itself something that saves lives.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

Clarification, January 17, 3:45 pm ET: Updated to clarify that the one death in a part-121 flight is specifically for US carriers.

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