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Airlines call for rule on seats for infants

The airline industry changed its position on infant-safety seats Thursday and asked the government to require them for all passengers under 2 years old. The proposal could require thousands of parents each day to buy tickets for children who now fly free, although airlines would retain the option of offering free rides or reduced fares.

"If you buckle your children up at 50 mph, why not at 550 mph?" asked Robert Aaronson, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents major air carriers.

The association took the unusual step of filing a petition asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to impose a tougher requirement on airlines than the agency itself is considering.

Airlines had encouraged the use of infant seats but had opposed rules to require them. The FAA now allows parents to hold children under 2 years old in the parents' laps.

The airline group also announced a campaign to distribute cards advising parents to buy tickets for their youngsters and bring car-safety seats when they fly.

For its part, the FAA proposed regulations Thursday to require airlines to allow passengers to use safety seats if they want to _ airlines now have the option of barring them _ and said it would consider making the seats mandatory after receiving public comment on the issue.

FAA administrator James Busey said he welcomed the industry's "willingness to enhance passenger safety."

Concern over infant safety seats has increased since the July 19 crash of a United Airlines DC-10 at Sioux City, Iowa, in which an unsecured infant was among 112 people killed.

In an Avianca crash that killed 73 people in New York a month ago, 17 infants were among the 159 passengers. One infant was killed and six were injured.

Aaronson said at a news conference that the 5,000 to 10,000 infants carried by U.S. airlines daily would be "far safer" strapped into car seats than in adults' laps. Nearly all car seats carry labels saying they are approved by the FAA for use on planes.

Aaronson said the industry is encouraging manufacturers to develop seats that would be easier to handle on airliners and products to secure infants without using an extra seat.

If the rule is imposed, airlines likely would continue to allow infants free on flights when extra seats are available, Aaronson said, but parents might have to pay full or discount fares to take small children on flights that are fully booked.

Asked why the industry does not adopt the infant-seat requirement on its own, Aaronson said there is a growing consensus among airlines, medical organizations and consumer groups that a uniform FAA rule would be best.

Aaronson acknowledged that before the recent accidents, some airline personnel refused to allow the seats on flights.

The FAA has resisted calls for tougher rules, partly because of the cost to parents and the low number of infant casualties in airliner accidents. A Harvard Medical School study estimated in the early 1980s that three lives could have been saved over five years with the use of safety seats.

Some officials have argued that rising costs would force many families to drive rather than fly with infants, subjecting children to a greater risk than flying without an infant seat.