Nunavut plane crash that killed baby could spark child safety debate

The Globe and Mail

A damaged Perimeter Aviation Fairchild aircraft lies in the snow at Sanikiluaq Nunavut Airport, Saturday, December 22, 2012. The RCMP say a chartered plane with nine people on board crashed on Saturday shortly after 6 p.m. Eight survivors are all being treated for non-life threatening injuries. (Handout/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The mother of a baby boy who died in a plane crash in Nunavut on Saturday was doing what so many other mothers and fathers have done: she was holding her infant on her lap.

The six-month-old boy was the only passenger to perish when a twin-engine turbo prop plane crashed on its second attempt to land in Sanikiluaq, a tiny community located on the Belcher Islands in the southeastern corner of Hudson Bay. Most of the people aboard the aircraft – six other passengers and two pilots – escaped without serious injuries.

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The investigation into the circumstances of the crash is in the early stages and being led by the federal Transportation Safety Board (TSB). In a brief phone interview Monday, Nunavut’s chief coroner, Padma Suramala, confirmed the baby was sitting on his mother’s lap when the plane hit the ground near the runaway. The cause of death is still being examined and the name of the infant is not being released.

The Transportation Safety Board plans to look at all possible factors, including weather conditions, the condition of the runway and the state of the aircraft, as it tries to piece together what went wrong on Flight 671. The Fairchild Metro 3 plane, which was travelling from Winnipeg, belongs to Perimeter Aviation LP, but was chartered to Keewatin Air, which schedules three trips a week between Winnipeg and Sanikiluaq.

TSB spokesman John Cottreau said he expects the investigation will include a review of how the infant died and whether safety could have been improved inside the aircraft’s cabin. The transportation board’s mandate includes making recommendations to eliminate or reduce safety problems, but the TSB does not have the authority to make changes. That power rests with the federal government.

In Canada and the United States, parents are allowed to hold children under the age of two on their laps during flights, although both Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration strongly recommend parents place their babies in a separate seat with government-approved restraints.

“The use of a child restraint system provides the greatest degree of protection for the infant or child and its use during flight will help in case of unanticipated turbulence,” Transport Canada notes on its website.

Using a child-restraint device will add to travel costs for a family, as the measure requires a separate seat. (Infants are allowed to sit on a parent’s lap at no cost for domestic flights and at a much lower cost for international trips.)

Transport Canada did not respond Monday to a request for information. The crash in Sanikiluaq will likely spark a debate about whether child-restraint devices should be mandatory in planes, just as they are in cars.

In 2010, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board urged its regulators to require that all passengers have their own seats and restraints, including children under the age of two. The recommendation stemmed from an investigation into a horrific 2009 plane crash in Montana that killed all 14 people aboard, including seven children.

This wasn’t the first the U.S. safety board had made the recommendation. At the time of the latest proposal, the Federal Aviation Administration pledged to take a fresh look at the issue, but noted the agency had no immediate plans to change its flight rules for infants.

"What we found was that there were some parents who would be sensitive to price, and they would choose to drive instead of fly," a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson told The Associated Press in September, 2010. "We would be forcing them into automobiles, which are less safe."

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