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.