Air Canada and the Car Seat Debacle

Traveling with child(ren) is difficult on its own, but flying with Air Canada? Dang, that’s a new difficulty level unlocked.

I am writing this as a public service announcement (a life pro tip) to all parents who fly with them. Please note that even if your car seat is Transport Canada-approved, you may not be able to use it on the seat that you purchased for your child, depending on the competence of the staff on board. They tell you so many different rules and the reasons for these rules, they can’t all be true. And even if you follow the rules on their website, they will try to gaslight you and tell you that it’s your fault it doesn’t fit, so the car seat will either have to go or you will be asked to disembark from the plane.

If that TLDR version has your mouth open in disbelief (unless you are used to such travel anecdotes) and you want to know the whole story, read on.

Make it make sense!

From lost luggage, to long service times even when you fly business class (what’s the point of paying all that extra dollars), to plain incompetence in what should be general knowledge (e.g. where to check in an airport to get a tag for a stroller gate check), Air Canada simply sucks.

The latest debacle happened on our flight from Vancouver to Montreal. We had previously flown with our Evenflo Sonus, rear-facing, in a middle seat in the middle row. So this time around, we set it up the same way, with a happily sleeping baby who had tired out from a long tantrum.

All of a sudden, we were told that the seat was facing the wrong way and should be forward facing. They said it was because there wasn’t enough legroom for my toddler’s legs when the seat is rear-facing and that because her weight was more than 10kg, based on a manual they have that they pulled out of thin air. (according to some manual they have) and so must be forward facing.

I said that firstly, we have flown that way before. Secondly, there is not much difference in legroom with the seat forward facing and rear facing, especially accounting for the fact that the seat in front will likely be leaning backwards (passengers usually do this in transit). Third, even in cars, you stay rear-facing as long as possible, depending on the height and weight limits of your car seat.

The airline staff flatly told us the people on our previous flight, from Montreal to Vancouver, were absolutely wrong. Funny, no? They kind of backed themselves into a corner. So, if the Air Canada staff was wrong last time and approved us to have our seat rear-facing, did they inadvertently endanger my daughter? Are they then liable?

But just to get things over with, my husband switched the car seat around to forward facing. However, the seat couldn’t stay put even with the base folded, and it was rocking side to side and forward and backward. How is that any safer, I asked?

The flight attendant helping us didn’t seem to know what to do and so consulted other flight attendants, who also did not know what to do. What—is this the first time that someone has had to use a car seat?

Finally, a group of flight attendants congregated in our area and tried to figure it out and help us. And then suddenly, one of them approached us and imperiously said, “We cannot take any more time delaying this flight. Either we remove that seat or check it (in luggage) or they get off the plane.” The nerve.

Once again, I tried to reason, of course certainly with my voice raised because situation was extremely frustrating. (And I certainly was not the only one annoyed, as one flight attendant was roughly banging our seat around). The entire matter was ridiculous. We bought a seat for my daughter, we bought a car seat that had the Transport Canada sticker on it, the car seat manual specifically states it is approved for airplane travel, and now they’re saying we can’t use it? So now I’m stuck carrying my daughter on my lap for the entire flight?! A toddler, unrestrained?

When I raised this point, their story changed. It’s not the car seat, one of them said. It’s the airplane seat itself. It’s not safe, they said, to use this specific car seat with their seats. Our car seat is too big. The airplane seat is too narrow.

“But don’t worry, you can use the seat belt on the seat for your daughter. She can even lay in the space between you two, the carrying on the lap is only during takeoff and landing,” one of them added.

“But don’t you have height requirements to use the airplane seat’s seatbelt? And how is her laying between the two of us, with no belt on, any safer than being strapped in a car seat?” I asked incredulously.

Like seriously, balance of probability? What is more likely to happen, airplane turbulence where my daughter can hurt herself, or an impact that would break her hips if she sat rear-facing?

The most annoying and arrogant flight attendant of them all simply said, “That’s it, out they go. They’ll be put on the next flight.”

So what?! It’s now our freaking fault, and we will be hauled out of the plane because of their incompetence and because of faulty airline design? We complied with all the regulations, and we’re the ones being kicked off the plane?

Obviously, as we needed to get home, we finally opted to have the car seat checked. But seriously, the audacity and arrogance of that flight attendant to just threaten to kick us out of the plane? Really? That’s your solution? If she were a doctor in hospital, would she just pull the plug on someone? If she was the patient, would she be okay with a doctor just pulling the plug on her?

I wish I took a recording of this entire incident to make it go viral. You should have seen how my daughter, uncomfortable with how she was seated on the flight and while sleeping, threw a major tantrum, which has never happened before. You should have seen how, during landing, despite my best efforts to restrain my daughter, she almost slipped out of my arms because she was not a baby anymore whom I can hold close to my chest. So tell me, Air Canada, which situation was safer?

Before I forget, I wanted to add that most of the flight attendants were sympathetic and tried to be helpful, even later throughout the flight. It was just that individual who threatened to kick us off the plane who was really out of line. It wasn’t our fault that the plane was late in taking off because they couldn’t figure out what to do, nor did they know their own rules. It wasn’t our fault that we followed the procedures on their website, and we still couldn’t make it work. But what do you expect of a company that exists in an oligopoly, so much so that Canadians are simply at the mercy of this airline?


I wrote quickly on Twitter, in public and in private, to Air Canada to let them know about the situation. They simply told me to check their guidelines on child restraint devices on the planes. Which I did, obviously, before I bought this car seat. If I had any more concerns, they said, I could send comments to customer relations. But knowing first hand how it takes hours to reach anyone human on Air Canada, I would rather write it on my own platform and hopefully warn other parents to be more cautious when bringing car seats on the aircraft.

I also wrote to Air Canada because I wanted this situation addressed. The flight attendants claim they have a list of seats that fit their criteria, that we can bring on the plane. I asked for this list while we were in transit, so we know what to bring next time. They promised me a list, but not one flight attendant gave it to me. And besides, why is that list not on their website? So what, we’re now in a guessing game and, should you risk bringing one on board, it’s going to be a lottery? What are supposed to do next time we fly? Take our chances with the staff?

On a last note, I must add that I was greatly displeased by another snarky flight attendant who, upon seeing our backpacks on the floor by our seats, sneered that we had too many bags. How, pray tell, did I have too many bags? We bought three seats. We had three carry-on luggages, three personal items (the backpacks), and a purse that had our food. If you checked the list of extra items allowed on board, you would see that a purse of specific dimensions was allowed. And so were coats, for that matter, which we had given that it’s the winter. There was also not much assistance, even initially, when families with small children were allowed to board. This was contrary to our previous experiences, where there was a point to priority boarding and families were helped.

I do not know the staff of this flight, and I have noticed that the crew did not wear nametags (perhaps because they were scared of being identified in a complaint or in a bad review?). But if you ever get these people, well⁠—I hope you packed an extra luggage of patience because you will need it.

Dr. Jade Marie Tomaszewski is a pathologist-in-training at McGill University, where she also did her degree in MSc Pathology. She obtained her medical degree (MD) from the University of the Philippines, after completing a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In her (little) spare time, she enjoys spending time with family, curling up with a book and a large mug of tea, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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