We've all heard the flight crew spiel: "When seated, we recommend you keep your seatbelt securely fastened, even when the sign is off," or words to that effect. And while we probably all assume that wearing a seat belt might save our lives in the event of an emergency, some real data backs it up.
From SKYbrary, a wiki created by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, International Civil Aviation Organization, and the Flight Safety Foundation: "Seat belts restrain the body movement when excessive force is applied (e.g. in a crash, during severe turbulence, etc.) which helps people survive by: preventing people from being thrown around the aircraft and into hard objects or other persons; preventing people being thrown out of the aircraft in case of a hull breach, either in flight or during a high impact crash. Since it is generally not known when an aircraft will pass through turbulence (especially clear-air turbulence), it is in the interest of safety that all passengers on board are secured in their seats for as much of the time as practical."
SKYbrary then goes on to highlight the case of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crashed at SFO in 2013. "A few occupants were ejected at impact but most managed to evacuate subsequently and before fire took hold. Neither of the two ejected passengers were wearing their seatbelts and the investigation concluded that their ejection was attributed entirely to that fact and that they would otherwise have remained in the cabin and survived."
Nevertheless, while most of us likely don't want to be difficult passengers, there are times when you just really need to use the bathroom and it seems like the fasten seatbelt sign has been lit for an inordinately long time. What to do?
While the flight seems smooth, Annette Long, a flight attendant of 13 years, told Stuff: "I'm not going to physically force you to stop. I'm not going to tell you 'No, you can't go to the bathroom.' I'm just going to inform you, because I'm required to inform you, that the captain still has his seat belt sign on, and I don't think it's safe for you to be up."
Official FAA regulations state that, "passengers unfastening their seat belts when the seat belt sign is illuminated concerns the FAA." They continue: "as long as the sign is illuminated, crewmembers should periodically remind passengers that the seat belt sign is lighted. Crewmembers should make additional and forceful announcements if passengers stand and the seat belt sign is illuminated, especially during turbulent air operations." Regulations do not advise that passengers be stopped from standing up — just "forcefully" reminded that the sign is on.
However, a 2015 article at Slate had this advice: "Don’t ask a flight attendant for permission. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, distinguishes between flight attendants’ duty to inform and their duty to enforce... (so) flight attendants have evolved a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” detente: It would be negligent for a flight attendant to grant you permission to use the bathroom if the seatbelt sign is illuminated, but many of them aren’t likely to stop you unless they judge the conditions to be truly unsafe."
But, the article goes on to point out that if a flight attendant deems the situation dangerous and does try to stop you, you must comply. "Because it’s very much illegal for passengers to disobey crew member instructions," and the FAA is far more likely to fine a passenger for insubordination that for simply unbuckling a seatbelt.
A good rule of thumb: If you really have to go, and air seems smooth, do it quickly. But if you're in the midst of a bumpy patch, you're just going to have to wait.
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