Why Are Seatbelts Required on Airplanes?

In reaction to Michael O’Leary once again talking about standing inflight in order to squeeze more passengers onto a plane, Garett Jones tweets,

What argument do defenders of government-mandated airline seatbelt paternalism use? It can’t be that plane crashes aren’t salient to buyers.

Of course it’s not even obvious that Michael O’Leary’s RyanAir really wants stand up aircraft. They want to talk about standing up on planes, because it signals that they do everything possible to offer a cheap product, and it gets free coverage of that meme. Just like every so often he talks about charging to use the lavatories.

Nonetheless, Jones asks a good question. Why do we have to use seatbelts on planes?

I’m not talking about why seatbelts are provided, I think they are really helpful. Anyone who has been through rare though meaningful turbulence will attest that they can help you avoid injury. That’s true even for unanticipated clear air turbulence that comes as a surprise, I think the admonition to keep your seat belt fastened even when the seat belt sign is off is wise advice.

But why is it so important to ensure that everyone complies with that advice, such that when a pilot turns the seatbelt sign on mid-flight that passengers might even be woken if they have a blanket covering themselves and the blanket isn’t underneath the belt?

In other words, why aren’t seatbelts a choice? Planes are safer than cars. We’re in planes most of the time for longer stretches than we’re in a car. And for most passengers, with less personal space as well. So there are at least tradeoffs. Why not let people decide for themselves, allow airlines to absolve themselves of risk if they put a card in the seat back pocket advising of risks, or don’t even require that (after all someone might steal the card and it won’t be there for the next passenger, some mechanism would have to be in place for requiring that the airline have been notified of the missing card before becoming liable for injuries).

Actually, speaking of liability, the airlines are required to provide instructions on how to operate the seatbelts. For anyone that hasn’t been in car for the last 50 years. And can’t figure it out on their own.

And why do we have to keep our seats in their ‘full upright position’ for landing? I’m not a fan of recline in coach, and I understand at least the claim that it could make evacuating a plane take a few seconds longer, but certainly first class passengers have better and quicker aisle access with their seats reclined than coach passengers do with their seats upright. Why can’t business class recline?

Seat belts have been required now for better than 70 years. I would love to hear from anyone with actual legislative historical insight into the requirement. Is it, as Jones suggests, paternalism (‘we know that it’s good for you so you have to’)? Or something else?

Even if we questioned the requirement, no airline will publicly lobby against is, airlines never want to be seen as arguing against safety. And flight attendants unions will argue to keep the requirements as well, after all they are there ‘primarily for your safety.’ The need to enforce rules keeps airlines from reducing their on board complement.

I won’t even delve into use of electronics below 10,000 feet…

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This one’s pretty obvious: it’s to protect the other passengers from potential injury caused by an unbelted passenger. Maybe I don’t care if the idiot next to me gets hurt because he didn’t put his seat belt on while the plane was going through severe turbulence. But I do care if that turbulence throws him onto me and I get hurt.

  2. The reason why I think it is mandated and the argument that airlines can absolve themselves of risk is for the exact reason you state for planes being safer than cars. Since people are so close together, if turbulance occurs and a person is launched from the seat, there is significant threat to the rest of the passengers. While the airlines may absolve themselves of risk for the person, can they absolve themselves of risk for everyone on board in addition to their crew members. Even if everyone takes the same risk and we end of suing each other rather than the airline, the crew of the plane could be injured and they have a legitamate claim against their employer. If their employer than stated that employees take their own risk, then why would anyone want to work for an employer which does not put the safety of its employees first?

  3. With regard to seatbelt use, it is required because unbelted passengers can potentially be a danger to not only themselves, but to others as well. In the event of severe turbulence, passengers themselves can potentially be flung into other passengers. Seat belts don’t completely solve this problem, but they do help mitigate the damage. Having said that, US airlines tend to be far more cautious about the use of the seat belt sign than they really need to be.

    The upright seat-back issue is really because of certification requirements. Aircraft manufacturers must test and certify the seats for both crashworthiness and emergency egress in any potential configuration they may be in during an emergency or during critical phases of flight. While it is entirely possible that some seats are perfectly safe in configurations other than “upright”, it would be impractical to test all different variations of those seats during the certification process (e.g. window seat reclined while aisle seat upright, or third row middle reclined while 11th row window is partially reclined, etc. … on a 300 seat plane, there are thousands of different variations). If an aircraft manufacturer (or operator) went through the time and expense of certifying other potential configurations, then it would be legal to keep them in those positions during critical phases of flight, but they don’t really gain anything by going through that expense so it’s easier just to require everyone to put his or her seat into a single known configuration.

  4. There are externalities to not wearing a seatbelt. If a passenger becomes severely injured due to turbulence, the flight might have to divert to get them medical attention. In even less likely but still possible situations an unrestrained passenger can become a dangerous projectile. The costs of mandating seatbelt use for the tiny number of passengers who would not use them anyway seem small enough to be worthwhile even for preventing such unlikely externalities.

    I agree that the instructions on seatbelt use (and indeed most other parts of the safety briefing) are pretty silly at this point, though as the briefings are generally by video now the cost is very small. I’ve noticed recently that bus operators like Megabus have begun showing safety videos at the start of each trip even though this is not required by law (and Chinatown bus operators still don’t do it). I don’t know if this is based on liability considerations or if there is actually customer demand for such displays of safety-consciousness.

  5. I can’t give you the definitive historical reasons, but broadly speaking one of the big advantages is that if somebody is wearing their seatbelt, you know where they are. It’s the same issue with electronics — setting aside the dubious “interference with aircraft systems” rationale, if you have your head buried in a screen, you’re less likely to pay attention when/if the FAs really need to get your attention. Both policies facilitate macro crowd control, though to what extent is, I suspect, closely-guarded data.

  6. Couple things. Flying is as “dangerous” as driving per hour which is how it should be measured (source: freakeconomics). Most people that say driving is safer use miles traveled (you can produce the opposite result, flying much more dangerous if you use per trip stats).

    Second, if someone flying into the air and hurts another person I’d say that impact more than just the idiot who doesn’t want to wear his seatbelt.

  7. In the event of an admittedly catastrophic event, even if the passenger beside me doesn’t mind the possibility of serious injury of death, I don’t want that injured or dead body crashing into me and causing me possibly serious injury or death.

  8. People are required seatbelts because none of us are the only person in the world.

    If we want to avoid seatbelts we can buy our own plane.

  9. If I’m in the window seat and I survive a serious incident, I’m probably going to have to evacuate. It definitely makes a difference to me whether the aisle and middle seats are occupied by live humans who will lead the way or by enormous corpses that I will have to climb over.

  10. I second the notion that this is simply a ridiculous post. A hobby of mine is reading NTSB accident reports. The number of FA broken bones is staggering – legs, arms, ankles, collar bones, you name it; almost always CAT. Or classic situations like autopilot / warning failures – TCAS, GPWS, you name it, it’s happened. The result is an rapid climb or descent, throwing people all over.

    Anyway, any sane person who reads that would conclude that if possible, it is best to stay belted in. And absolutely people have been injured by their neighbors flying onto them.

    This is hardly paternalism – the goal appears to be actually safety.

    Now, if you are suggesting that showing how to use a seat belt is worthwhile, THAT is a ridiculous idea.

  11. Agreed – I used to feel the same way, @Gary, until I was on a flight from Seattle to Calgary, descending over the front range of the rockies, and a rogue patch of warm air caused us to drop rather suddenly….I was in my seatbelt, and the upward force was so strong that it actually pained my torso. Everyone’s beverages went flying in the air as well, all over the seats and tray tables. The flight attendant was knocked right onto her rear as she stood in the aisle – clearly, the belts aren’t needed usually….but when they are needed, you’ll be thankful you had one on.

  12. The other factor with having a seat reclined is that in the event of a sudden (read: violent) deceleration upon impact, a reclined seat could allow the occupant to “pancake,” or slide forward (under the seatbelt), causing increased injury.

    (Of course, if the airlines REALLY cared about making crashes as survivable as possible they would provide shoulder harnesses, similar to those in automobiles. And if they REALLY REALLY cared, they would have passenger seats face toward the rear, the way flight attendant seats are positioned (so that the flight attendants are more likely to escape injury and be able to provide assistance to passengers.)

  13. Gary – the answer is simple. Turbulence, especially clear air turbulence. Some mandates actually have roots based in physics…

  14. Michael O’Leary is lying.

    As an example, 185 people survived the crash of United Airlines flight 232 in Sioux City Iowa even as the plane broke apart and exploded in a fireball. They survived because seat belts prevented then from flying about the cabin themselves.

    Of the people who died, 35 died due to smoke inhalation, 76 died for reasons other than smoke inhalation, 47 were seriously injured, 125 had minor injuries.

    For those not familiar with the crash, this is the video

  15. A few years ago my wife and I were flying LHR-LAX when we hit severe turbulence over Greenland and ended up with many serious injuries. Bodies were flying around the cabin…we didn’t get hit by anyone, but several people did. It’s clear that more people wearing seat belts would have helped in this situation and it has nothing to do with people wanting taking chances on their own. You can hurt other people, besides yourself.

  16. Wow Gary, I can’t believe with all the frequent travelers, almost no one thinks this is a valid question.

    I absolutely agree with you, and think the same thing when the 4th Flight Attendant’s come around to re-check that everyone has their seatbelt on. I can understand the “rule”, but not the amount of emphasis put on it. It seems like the most important thing about flying in a FA’s eyes is that you’re wearing your seat belt. And while safety is at the root, I’d wonder if just having the rule would limit their liability.

    And if we’re trying for an absolutely safe environment, there’s definitely other things the airlines could do (not serve alcoholic drinks for one) that would increase safety on the plane. (not that I would suggest it, I enjoy my bloody mary on a flight).

    Lastly, with the crazy turbulence everyone’s describing, I’m surprised that parents are allowed to hold small children on their laps during takeoff and landing. I’d think the risk of baby projectiles would be too great to allow it. Maybe we need baby belts…or atleast some strong velcro suits.

  17. As a private pilot one of the first and most repeated admonitions to me was always (among other things such a doing a thorough pre-flight–you’d be surprised how many private pilots become sloppy about this) to wear the seat belt. The reasons? As noted above.

    About the recline position: recently there was a documentary on TV which showed an unmanned commercial jet with crash test dummies seated in a plane, and the seats were in a variety of positions. The unmanned jet was intentionally crashed into the desert. Those dummies in reclined seats incurred more injuries than those in the fully upright position. The reason why was the increased angle of trajectory, i.e. the blunt force of the head hitting the knees, for example, or the seat in front of the passenger.

  18. I always made fun of the seatbelt instructions during the safety briefing. Then, on a flight out of Cuba, I sat by an elderly woman who had obviously never flown. I ended up having to adjust, fasten and release her belt for her because she couldn’t figure it out.

    Not many people out there like that, but there are a few.

  19. My implicit question was “Why does the *government* have to mandate seatbelts: If it’s important, won’t airlines mandate it it on their own?”

    Sounds to me like airlines would do just that: Private mandates would work just fine here.

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