Should small children have their own plane seats?

When you board a plane, the rules are clear for takeoffs and landings: Luggage must be stowed, seats must be upright and seatbelts buckled. But not when it comes to babies.

The FAA allows children under the age of 2 to fly free if they're sitting in an adult's lap.

That doesn't fly with Deborah Hersman, the president and CEO of the National Safety Council and the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. She said doing so is just not safe.

"I think it's something that a lot of people have grown accustomed to, but it's just simply not safe," Hersman said. "We wouldn't think about holding our infants in our arms in a car at 50 miles an hour. Why would we want to do it at 250 miles an hour in an airplane? It's just not safe. You want to make sure that everyone's restrained. It gives them the best chance of surviving an accident."

According to the NTSB, 85 percent of parents who fly with children under 2 carry them on their laps.

On the road, every state requires that children be held in size-appropriate restraints, and 49 of the 50 states require seatbelt use. Hersman said the FAA is not interested in passing such strict regulations on flights.

"It all goes back to a very old rule; we're talking about half a century ago, not based on any science," Hersman said. "They carved out this exemption for lap-held children and said it was OK. It just didn't keep up with the standards that we know about restraints. Fifty years ago, we didn't buckle up in cars. A lot has changed, and this is just a glaring gap in an otherwise incredibly safe industry."

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg recalled the outcome of United Flight 232, which crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa. The crash killed 185 people, and 111 survived. Four children were on board, being held on the laps of parents. Three were seriously injured and one was killed.

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United Airlines Flight 232 is seen after the plane crashed at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, July 19, 1989.
Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty Images

"When the NTSB investigated, it was a no-brainer," Greenberg said. "They realized right away that in a survivable, hard-G landing, nobody ... could maintain the grasp on their kids. The kids essentially became missiles. And it was an easy fix: provide restraint seats for kids under the age of 2 based on their weight."

Hersman said that until children are old enough to be fastened into airplane seats, they should sit in car seats on flights.

"Car seats yes, booster seats no," she said. "The reason why you want to use the car seats is they have been tested to be used in airplanes. In almost every car seat you buy, if you look on the side of it, there will be a label that says, 'approved by the FAA for use on airplanes.'"

But the FAA does not want to keep car seats on their planes.

"The FAA made a statement back in 2005, which is absurd," Greenberg said. "What they said was, we're not going to require the airlines to do this because if we did, they would just raise airfares and people who would otherwise fly would be killed in automobile accidents ... The NTSB did their own research and found absolutely no correlation between an increase in airfares and an increase in highway deaths."

In a statement, the FAA told CBS News Friday morning that requiring families to purchase tickets for children under 2 "would significantly raise the net price of travel for those families. Such price increases would divert some family travel."

Hersman said the U.S. has different regulations for toddler safety on planes than other countries.

"Around the world, the United States has different standards than Great Britain, than other countries," Hersman said. "And so if you buy a codeshare ticket, from one airline to another, parents could be faced with different rules in different countries, and that doesn't make any sense. We want to make sure that children are safe on airplanes."

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