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…