Watching Your Backside

My cockpit is full of switches that can get me into trouble. For example, if I activate the fuel crossfeed switch without monitoring fuel levels, I can cause a lateral imbalance. If I forget to engage the LNAV after selecting a direct intercept to a waypoint, the airplane will navigate itself off course. But nothing else can get me into more trouble than one simple switch: The seat belt sign.

It seems as though the majority of injuries to passengers and cabin crew occur as a direct result of the seat belt sign switch position. Aside from the humanitarian concern of being responsible for pain and suffering, a passenger injury affects the airline's balance sheet. Whereas the expense of a crewmember injury is generally limited to the premium paid by the airline for workmen's compensation and time lost away from the job, the sky can be the limit for a passenger injury.

There is also the residual effect of customer loyalty loss, which could be even more expensive. More than likely, the injured customer will pass on his or her negative experience to friends and family. I can't tell you how many times I have heard the statement, "I had the worst flight of my life on … ."

Accepting the responsibility for positioning the seat belt sign switch is often treated as a mundane task. But there are many factors involved with its use.

First, as passengers and pilots, we have all accepted the fact that the seat belt sign remains on from gate departure through at least initial climb. It is academic then, that the only decision to be made is when to turn the sign off. That's the first judgment call of the cockpit, and most likely the captain's.

Big deal. So what? Well, a few factors have to be considered. For instance, is turbulence occurring at the moment? If there is no turbulence, does the flight plan data indicate the potential? And if the data doesn't indicate the potential, does ATC have current turbulence pireps?

If the answer to all of those questions is negative, do you take the chance with the 80-year-old woman who needs a hip replacement? She won't be able to make it back from the lavatory fast enough if you encounter unexpected chop and have to turn the sign back on.

But what if you leave the seat belt sign on, just in case? I can guarantee you that the man in seat 20B with the small bladder doesn't think the sign applies to him, especially if it appears to be smooth.

It would seem that there are more problems with the seat belt sign off then on. Why not leave it illuminated the entire flight? Believe me, I've considered it. The problem with that strategy is that you lose your credibility.

If the sign is on all of the time, passengers cease to notice and cease to care. Besides, passengers have a right to stretch their legs, especially on long flights. There are times when the flight attendants' job could be made easier by not having to jostle with passengers standing in the aisles, but that should be common sense to most folks.

Making the decision to turn the sign on if turbulence is encountered, or if it is reported up ahead, is not difficult. Passengers understand, especially if it is reinforced by a PA announcement. But do you turn on the sign at the first bump?

I try to avoid the yo-yo effect. That's when the seat belt sign is turned off, then back on, then back off again in a short period of time. It's delusional to think that passengers will actually react. And no experienced flight attendant is going to confront a line of people waiting for the lavatory, and tell them to be seated, unless she is suicidal. (Or unless she can't get to her galley because of the crowd.) The turbulence has to be rocking the lavatory line off their feet before a flight attendant issues a "Be seated" order.

If the turbulence is short-lived or minimal when the seat belt sign is on, your credibility is again suspect. People will perceive that none of the turbulence encountered so far has amounted to anything significant.

What if conditions or reports warrant you to consider seating the flight attendants? That's not a small decision. If the flight attendants are in the middle of the aisle with the beverage carts, it is not an easy chore to have them roll their equipment back to the galleys and then be seated. And if the turbulence is short-lived or inconsequential, you might get grumpy flight attendants. They'll forgive you the first time, but probably not the next.

Although most flight attendants take the cockpit's instruction to be seated in the serious vein it was intended, some don't. That's one of my pet peeves. I issue a "Be seated" instruction to the flight attendants because their safety is my utmost concern. When I hear banging and slamming noises coming from the galley during this time, I can only shake my head.

I wish it weren't true, but I have had flight attendants take the opportunity to visit the lavatory in order to re-apply mascara, lipstick, etc. Like passengers, some believe that smooth air, and not the seat belt sign, is an invitation to resume their activities. Although I try to be explicit in my communication to the number one flight attendant, sometimes the message gets lost in translation. My instructions are always to wait for my call. Perhaps some have decided that I have forgotten them. But if that's the case, it only takes one push of the intercom button to confirm my intentions.

The worst-case scenario is to have not seated the flight attendants when conditions warranted. Good luck. The lawyers will be counting on me. I'll see them at the hearing.

In that regard, I try to make my seat belt decision based on all the information available. If ATC advises of turbulence, I advise the flight attendants. If I suspect that turbulence is imminent, I turn on the seat belt sign and make a PA.

It's much easier to make seat belt sign decisions when there is a visual picture of the weather. I have deviated around billowing cumulonimbus clouds on numerous occasions. The seat belt sign has sometimes remained on without experiencing so much as a ripple even when I was certain that we would encounter choppy air. As always, I felt better safe than sorry. But then again, that's the time I fantasize about acting out Gary Larson's infamous Far Side cartoon of the two airline pilots creating their own turbulence; just for the sake of credibility, of course.

And when I think it's going to remain smooth, I wait at least three minutes before I turn the seat belt sign off. And yes, I've still been caught. Those of us in the airline business know that the OFF position of the seat belt sign switch is connected directly to the turbulence gods.

In the post 9/11 era, there is another implication for the seat belt sign. It is now a security issue. Non-compliance could mean intent to commit a threatening act. Without giving away sensitive information, non-compliance is no longer treated as simple defiance behavior.

On a recent flight, seat belt non-compliance became an issue. I was dismayed by the preposterous behavior of a first class passenger. The gentleman insisted that the seat belt sign did not apply to him, and that his right to unfasten his seat belt was his prerogative. His access to the lavatory was not to be restricted. After all, he knew what was best. He stated to the flight attendant, he possessed a Private Pilot's license, which made him well versed in the effects of turbulence.

Despite the efforts of one syrupy sweet flight attendant, the man got out of his seat and entered the lavatory. I had instructed the flight attendants to remain seated because of potential turbulence around an area of South Florida thunderstorms. My instructions were warranted. We experienced moderate chop in the climb.

Later in the flight, the gentleman found it necessary to threaten the same flight attendant with a lawsuit. It took a few minutes of venting on the cockpit jumpseat before I could turn her distraught expression into at least a slight smile. Not until our arrival on the ground did the gentleman mention a rather ambiguous medical problem. And that was after my suggestion to the flight attendant to make such an inquiry.

After we were parked at the gate, I explained the rulebook to the non-compliant passenger on the jet bridge. I was not obligated, but I thought it would be in the best interest of both the passenger and the next crew he encountered.

Calm would not describe the man's demeanor. When he took a cell phone call from his "team of attorneys", I took the opportunity to nod my way out of the discussion. I am sure he will be happy to know that his team of attorneys will be exchanging legal papers with the FAA.

Flight attendants are not sky Nazis. Even if the seat belt sign is on, there is a good chance that the flight attendant will let you pass. Unless your age has only one digit in the number, there is no excuse for at least communicating the need to relieve your physiological discomfort.

The seat belt sign switch is one of the least complicated switches in the cockpit, but it can create the most complications. The next time you are a passenger on a flight and the seat belt sign is illuminated, give this discussion some thought. The crew really does care about your back side. We'd like to keep it from hitting the aisle floor, or anything else for that matter. 7

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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