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The Hows & Whys of the Dos & Don’ts

Ever wonder if there’s a method to our madness when the crew prepares your flight for takeoff and landing? There’s a lot more than you might know. Here’s the thinking behind some of the rules and regulations.

Seatbacks in the upright and locked position

People love to roll their eyes when we have to ask them to bring their seatbacks fully upright. That small amount of recline isn’t really going to make any difference in an emergency, is it?
In matters more than you might think. Let’s start off by thinking of the person behind you. Try standing up straight when the seat in front of you is leaned back. You’ll notice it isn’t the easiest, especially with just how cramped economy class seating has become. In an emergency, when seconds count, reclined seats can cost you time trying to evacuate your row. Also, those handy brace positions you absolutely, 100% studied in your seatback card prior to departure? They become a lot less effective with the seat ahead of you reclined.

The second school of thought is that the force of an impact or immediate stop of an aircraft could cause more head and neck injuries if you’re flung forward from a supine position.

Refusing to grant or deny permission to get up when the seatbelt sign is on

There’s an absolutely hilarious Key & Peele skit that every flight attendant, including yours truly, finds to absolutely nail our struggles in the air. In it, immediately after the captain turns on the seatbelt sign, a passenger decides to address his natural needs. A flight attendant appears just then to tell him that the seatbelt sign has been illuminated. The passenger continually challenges his ability to require him to remain restrained, to which the flight attendant will only repeat, “Seatbelt sign is on.” What follows is an intense face-off devolving into nonsensical babble and willed Jedi-style turbulence. (Fact: We have all had the turbulence fantasy. Many times.)

This whole skit is borne from a frustrating truth: we can not answer you one way or the other if you ask permission to get up to use the bathroom while the seatbelt sign is on. We are human, and we know that sometimes the seatbelt sign is on for an hour or two and you can’t be expected to hold it that long. However, we would be violating the law by providing a response other than “The seatbelt sign is on.” By saying, “Be careful,” or “Wait until it isn’t so bumpy,” we can be personally fined by the FAA if we have an inspector onboard or you sue the airline should you get injured. We must inform you that the sign is illuminated, and after that, the decision is left to you. (We can’t say that, either.) So don’t take it personally if we seem to be evasive – being “nice” can cost us thousands of dollars and a suspension or termination from work.

The science behind putting your O2 on first

People love the metaphoric value of this part of the safety briefing, and I can’t really blame them. In life, as on the plane, we are no good to others if we first aren’t good to ourselves. But the science to this is also kind of interesting.

For a parent, it is unthinkable to care for yourself over your child in an emergency. We instinctively will lay down our lives to protect them. But in the event of a decompression onboard, it is a matter of life or death. The size of an adult body is, of course, much larger than a child’s, therefore requiring more oxygen. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen in the blood, causes our ability to react and use sound judgment to slow down significantly. Without supplemental oxygen, a person would continue to deteriorate, which makes getting on oxygen – as well as the captain rapidly descending to a much lower altitude – absolutely necessary.

The time it takes before our ability to think clearly is known as TUC, or Time Of Useful Consciousness. The higher the flight level, the less time we have to think straight and remain aware of our situation. An average adult at 35,000 feet has between 30-60 seconds TUC. A child needs less oxygen and will therefore have a higher TUC. Here’s a fascinating video of how hypoxia affects thought processing. The sooner your brain works, the better both your chances are.

“Keep my infant…out of my seatbelt?”

This one really gets some parents thinking we must truly be heartless. A parent often thinks that buckling a child in along with him or her is the best protection. But, in a sudden impact, the opposing pressure between a parent and the seatbelt can cause devastating injuries to an infant or toddler. I have my own issues with the fact that lap children are even allowed onboard, though I’ve admittedly traveled with mine in my arms when two seats weren’t available. The FAA has stated that the alternative for a parent who can not afford a plane ticket for a young child is to drive a car, which does not have the same impeccable safety record of commercial flight. It’s a tough point to argue, although hopefully better methods than “just hold onto your kid the best you can” will evolve. Until then, belting a child in with you is absolutely not it.

All in all, you may not agree with the rules and regulations of flying, but don’t challenge them or give your crew a hard time. It isn’t difficult to comply with the rules, and the safe history of commercial flying is largely in part to their development. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you want to know more. We’re there primarily for your safety, so the better you understand, the better we’ve done our jobs.
Comments are Closed.
IanFromHKG April 24, 2017

There are a few others that I have wondered about over the years (although I think I have figured one or two of them out). Those that I can recall offhand: "The cabin lights will be dimmed for landing". I used to think this was so there wasn't too much light pollution for those living around the airport. Now I know it is to help passengers' eyes adjust to darkness to help them in a night evacuation. Different airlines have different brace positions. These (from my experience, at least), don't seem to vary for each airline according to aircraft type. So why would Airline A flying an A320 have a different brace position from Airline B flying an A320, particularly where they have the same type of seating? When the announcement says that "child life vests/infant lifecots are available", how exactly do they intend to distribute these? And when? And how? The Offspring are now no longer minors (well, depending on your definition of minor - Junior Offspring turned 16 three days ago) so definitely don't need these any more, but when we were travelling them as infants or small children I always wondered how this was supposed to work. Why is it that in certain LH business class seats (the CX Cirrus Zodiac seat, for instance) the aisle-side armrest must be lowered for landing? Every poor bugger in the cabins further back has an armrest on the aisle side, and one heckuva lot less room between the front of it and the seatback ahead than there is in business, and always at least one other person to get out through that gap. So why, when in a direct-aisle-access business seat with more than enough room for my entire body width between the front of the armrest and the shell of the seat ahead do I have to lower the armrest?

JRjustJR April 22, 2017

One thought/comment The brace position on that card was written in the 1960's, when people were shorter and seats were further apart. The suggested brace position is actually FATAL for someone of my height in a 28"-30" pitch seat. But since my height (6'4") or taller is only 1% of the population, the FAA/NTSB have chosen to ignore that issue so airlines can boost revenue with more pax.

wijnands April 21, 2017

" Also, those handy brace positions you absolutely, 100% studied in your seatback card prior to departure? They become a lot less effective with the seat ahead of you reclined." Yeah right! At my height I'm challenged enough to fit into an economy seat. There is no way I could assume anything remotely resembling a brace position in an economy seat.

Loren Pechtel April 20, 2017

You're missing the big deal with the oxygen masks. Whether your child can go longer without oxygen (and where are you getting that from anyway?!) is irrelevant to the issue. The important factor here is that the time of useful consciousness is a lot shorter than the time until harm. You grab a mask and put it on your child. You then succumb, you have no mask. Hopefully the pilot gets the plane down to safe altitudes before brain damage occurs. You grab a mask and put it on yourself. Your child succumbs. You grab a mask and put it on your child. You're well within the safety window, they wake back up, no harm done.

Sydneyberlin April 20, 2017

There's a very simple solution to the fasten seat belt sign issue- just have the on when it is really needed. In my experience, Us based airlines are the most inconsistent at this, my guess is the fear of potential lawsuits if something goes wrong but maybe the captains are just too lazy to care. So many domestic flights in the US I have been on where that damn sign just stayed on during the entire duration with no turbulence in sight. Most airlines outside the US are much better with this and only switch the sign on when it's really needed.