For three decades, former flight attendant Jan Brown has been on a mission, attempting to force the FAA to require all children to be belted into seats on commercial airliners.
Years after retiring from United Airlines, Brown is still haunted by a single moment: a July 1989 confrontation, tinged with the scent of burning jet fuel, in the shadow of a flaming aircraft she and 183 others had just escaped.
"The first person I met was the mother of a 22-month-old boy. I knew she was headed back to the wreckage, and I blocked her way," Brown said.
That wreckage, was all that remained of United Airlines flight 232. The aircraft, a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, had suffered a catastrophic explosion in its tail-mounted number two engine. The fan disc of that engine had sliced thru the plane's hydraulic lines, rendering its rudders, flaps, and ailerons inoperable.
Captain Al Haynes and his crew discovered the only way they could steer, or even maintain altitude, was by varying thrust to the two remaining engines. But the work-around was imprecise at best. And when Haynes managed to guide the plane to a runway in Sioux City, Iowa, it descended at twice the normal speed. In the final moments, Brown advised the passengers to assume crash positions, including very specific instructions for the parents of the four lap children on board.
"Parents with lap children, place them on the floor at this time, and hold them," Brown recalled telling them. "And I just could not believe I was saying those words. It was the most ludicrous thing I've ever said in my life."
As the plane touched down, its left wingtip touched first, the wing tearing loose as the aircraft began cartwheeling down the runway.
"I could hear the screeching metal noises, just the shrieking metal," Brown recalled. "And then I realized we were starting to tip over."
The aircraft's cockpit and tail separated, with the main fuselage coming to rest, upside down in an adjacent cornfield.
Miraculously, 184 passengers survived, some so unscathed their clothes were not even torn. Standing in a gaping hole in the fuselage, Brown held control cables aside as the survivors filed out. And moments later, standing in the cornfield, she found herself face to face with Sylvia Tsao, whose 22 month old son Evan had been one of those four lap children.
"She just looked up at me and said, 'you told me to put my baby on the floor and he would be ok, and now he's gone,'" Brown recalled.
From that very moment, her life changed. Starting on that hot summer day in Sioux City, Brown embarked on a crusade to stop the practice of permitting lap children on commercial airliners. But 25 years later, the FAA still allows it, with children under two flying free if they are held by their parents.
"The FAA's an impenetrable obstacle to safety," she says. "As one FAA official said to me years ago when I asked how long it will take to get this done, he said, 'when there are enough deaths!'"
The agency argues that allowing parents to hold their children actually promotes safety. Their prevailing wisdom is that if families were forced to buy tickets for their toddlers, they would drive instead, exposing those same children to the dangers of highway crashes.
"Entire families would be subject to far higher fatality rates," the FAA said in a statement, "which would produce a net increase in overall transportation fatalities."
But elsewhere, on its own website, the agency warns parents about the dangers.
"The safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system, not on your lap," the FAA says. "Your arms aren't capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence."
Critics argue that the agency is trying to have it both ways: warning parents about the danger, while declaring that its safer to hold their children on an airplane rather than securing them in government-approved child seats in a car.
"I think it's unacceptable," Brown says. "I think it's criminal."
The FAA suggests in its statement that math and history favor their argument.
"The use of child restraint systems would have prevented three infant deaths in the past 32 years," the statement says. "There have been no preventable infant deaths on airline flights in 17 years."
The agency insists that same math suggests that had parents been required to buy tickets for their children, enough would have diverted to car travel and been involved in accidents, that 72 more people would have died over 10 years, and 115 over 15 years.
The National Transportation Safety Board disagrees.
The agency, frequently at odds with the FAA on issues of safety, says its own studies on periods of decreased air travel, show there were no commensurate increases in the number of infant deaths on the nation's highways. Indeed, during the largest drop in passenger traffic in history, after 9/11, fatal injuries to children under 5 decreased 12.4%, and total injuries decreased 11.9%.
"(The FAA argument) is contrary to all reasonable safety practices," the authors of the NTSB study write. "Passengers are now required to securely stow all carry-on baggage during takeoff and landing because of the potential risk of injury to other passengers. However, the same passengers are permitted to hold a child of equal size and weight in their lap."
Former NTSB member John Goglia echoed that argument.
"The parent can't hold the child, so that child becomes a flying object in the cabin," he said. "It drives me nuts that we haven't been able to get the restraints that are needed."
Goglia cautioned parents that they should not believe the practice of holding their children is safe, just because it is permitted by the FAA.
"The cost of a ticket is far less than the pain and suffering that they're going to experience if something bad happens," he said. "There's no question that regulations are written in blood, and Flight 232 certainly should have changed it."
One of the survivors of flight 232, Rod Vetter, says he can attest to the impossibility of holding a child in a tumbling aircraft.
"I remember thinking that's just crazy," he said. "It broke my neck. How would an infant be able to live through that pressure?"
Brown has met to face to face with FAA officials, has lectured on the topic across the country, and is now preparing to attend a 25th anniversary reunion of crew, passengers, and first responders in Sioux City. And she says she will continue arguing for all children to be buckled-in, for the sake of the most vulnerable passengers.
"I will keep at it until it is done," she says. "I will never give up."