Ah. Five minutes of peace. The kids had fallen asleep, exhausted from too much vacation. The flight attendant poured me a surprisingly fresh cup of coffee. I'd just gotten into my new mystery when we hit the bumpy air.
Before the pilot could offer his customary apologies, hot coffee splattered all over my book and me. The kids' markers rolled off the tray tables and disappeared. They woke up with a start. You can guess what the rest of that flight was like.
"We're not going to crash, are we?" nervously asked 10-year-old Reggie, who had heard too much lately about air disasters and the children involved in them.
"I feel sick," moaned 5-year-old Melanie, who was in no mood to tighten her seat belt.
This time, we were lucky. The turbulence didn't last long, and we were fine, save for a favorite purple marker gone forever and a mom who hasn't yet finished that book.
58 hurt each year
But others aren't so fortunate. The Federal Aviation Administration reports 58 passengers not wearing their seat belts are injured each year by turbulence while flying in the United States.
Last December, in a widely publicized case, 16 passengers on an American Airlines jet -- including a 7-month-old infant -- were hurt when their flight ran into clear-air turbulence over Colorado.
FAA officials explain that turbulence often occurs unexpectedly, caused by air movement related to storms, cold and warm fronts or other atmospheric conditions. It even can happen when the sky appears clear.
That's why it's essential to remain buckled throughout a flight, just as you would in a car. It's just as important to keep children restrained, especially young ones.
"A plane could drop a couple of thousand feet," says Jane Goodman, spokeswoman for the 40,000-member Association of Flight Attendants. "And when you hit a bump, the baby is going to go flying, head first."
Even the most vigilant parent would be hard-pressed to hang on to the baby in her lap or the toddler in the next seat who has made a game of unbuckling his seat belt each time his dad buckles it.
"The point is the injuries caused by turbulence are completely preventable," says FAA spokesman Alison Duquette.
(For more information on turbulence, call the FAA's Consumer Hot Line at  FAA-SURE or visit the FAA Web site at http: // www.faa.gov.)
I've been on too many bumpy flights to count. It's certainly no fun to try to keep a young child happy in a cramped space for hours at a stretch, trying to keep my noisy brood from annoying the childless travelers surrounding us.
Frankly, it's easier in a car. The kids won't fight about staying buckled. They know that car seats are the way they travel: It's the law and one that has proved a consistent lifesaver. We can't even take a new baby home from the hospital without a safety seat.
Even though government and airline officials now agree approved child-safety restraints (rear-facing ones for infants under 20 pounds) can provide the same lifesaving function in the skies, they won't require parents to use them.
And from where I sit, that's a serious problem.
No legal obligation
The FAA's response has been to launch a public awareness campaign to "strongly urge" parents to use approved child-safety seats on board flights for children under 40 pounds. Nothing prevents parents from legally flying without them.
Airlines "strongly recommend" that parents use safety seats, but provide a strong incentive to do the opposite -- free air fare, though no guaranteed seat, for children under 2 years old. Thus, on full or overbooked flights, infants and toddlers end up in the parents' laps unless their parents paid for a seat in advance.
Most parents end up checking their safety seats with the rest of their luggage. I've taken safety seats to the gate only to have the gate agent roll her eyes as if I were dreaming that I was going to get an empty seat to strap it in.
Few parents recognize the value of safety seats in the air. Five babies who died in plane accidents or incidents in the past 18 years could have survived had they been restrained, the FAA reported in a recent study.
The federal line
The FAA's official line is that mandating the use of safety seats would raise the cost of air travel for young families and force more of them to travel by car, auguring 82 additional traffic fatalities over the next decade.
Flight attendants, who lobbied hard for a new law, counter that babies are the only item on board planes -- including coffee cups -- that aren't tied down.
But even the heightened public awareness of air safety issues hasn't helped the cause. "We haven't seen a major increase in usage on airplanes," says the Association of Flight Attendants spokeswoman Goodman.
How can it, as long as children under 2 may travel free on parents' laps on domestic flights?
What can parents do? Write or e-mail your congressman to express your concern. Send another letter to the president of your favorite airline explaining why parents should be encouraged to use child-safety seats, not penalized by having to purchase an extra seat.
Most important, press every parent you know to lug that safety seat to the gate the next time they fly with their baby or toddler. (Tell them if they haven't bought a ticket for their child, the gate agent will give them one if it's available.)
It's worth the hassle -- one bumpy patch is all it takes to ruin your trip, or worse.
Pub Date: 2/23/97