Before Matthew published his recent post on a man that helped himself to the bathroom before takeoff while the seatbelt sign was on, I had penned the following post. On a flight to the Freddies from Chicago Midway to Seattle/Tacoma, the seatbelt sign was illuminated the entire flight – it was unwarranted in its entirety. But there are real safety concerns that arise as a result of leaving the seatbelt sign on without cause.
Safety First, Especially This Week
My wife loves a good rule (I prefer to break them – rebel, I know). Following last week’s uncontrolled engine failure on another Southwest flight, we reminded ourselves that sometimes, bad things happen and that safety is always worth a review. Just look at how many fools were taking selfies with their oxygen masks on incorrectly. As Bobby Laurie (famed flight attendant and former Upgrd.com contributor) stated on Twitter, “The instructions are on the bag!”
We counted the rows to the nearest exit – it was behind us, eight rows, the maximum limit for a safe exit according to experts (though some now recommend five). We were buckled up tight and insisted on our daughter wearing her full top and bottom CARES harness, usually, we only make her buckle both for takeoff and landing. We followed instructions including the seatbelt sign and paid attention to the briefing, no shame in an occasional re-certification from time-to-time, right?
From the banks of Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean our 737-800 was riding smooth. There were normal odds and end bumps along the four-hour flight, but I fly 250,000 miles/year- trust me, it was a totally smooth flight. It was simple, the pilot made a mistake and forgot to turn the sign off. He/She is human, there’s no shame in making a mistake. However, 90 minutes into the flight I queried one of the flight attendants as to whether or not the sign could come off.
She said, “When the pilot feels it’s safe, the sign will come off.”
Yeah, that’s fair enough, and I wouldn’t want the pilot to do anything unsafe, but this wasn’t a matter of safety, this was a matter of forgetfulness, something everyone is guilty of on occasion. I’m not mad at the pilot, but then I got a follow-up question from the FA.
“There’s something else is on your mind. I can see it on your face” Gulity as charged. She could see that I didn’t think that safety was the problem.
“I want the flight to be safe, it just seemed like maybe the pilot forgot.” Because clearly they had.
“If there’s nothing else-” she said as she walked off. Her version of sit down and be quiet, you got your answer.
Earlier in the week I had been on a total of five flights, four on American (two of which were through thunderstorms) and the previous flight on Southwest a couple of hours before. On every one of them the seatbelt sign came off at some point, and each of those flights was rougher than this one was. The flight attendant was simply unwilling to even ask the cockpit if it could be turned off.
Fatigue Wears In
My wife, who needed to use the facilities from before we boarded the aircraft waited more than an hour and a half dutifully and adhered to the FA’s advice that the pilot hadn’t forgotten and there was a genuine safety concern. I’m afraid I am a bit more cynical.
The problem is, that the effectiveness of the protocol is diminished if it’s always on. The same thing happens with Homeland Security’s Threat Level, never dropping below yellow (“elevated risk for terroristic threat”) since its inception. If it’s always elevated, your awareness is no longer heightened, fatigue sets in and wear down any safety benefits.
Sure enough, 45-50 minutes into the flight, stragglers started to head to the bathroom, knowing that the sign was either on in error or that legally, this is the one time a passenger can ignore a crew members orders and make their own judgment call. It wasn’t quite a steady flow by the time my wife decided that she would finally excuse herself despite the sign and the FA’s insistence that it was a pertinent safety request. She returned a few minutes later with all of her limbs in good working order, no bumps, no bruises; the sign remained illuminated. I followed suit, heading first to the rear of the aircraft where the aforementioned FA was making herself lunch, then to the front as it became available. Three more crew members had gathered there, catching up like anyone does with co-workers at their job. I decided not to mention it to them and moved into the restroom, no one said a word.
By the end of the flight, passengers filled the aisles and forgot it was on. But what if severe turbulence struck the flight? They would be right to assume it was safe to be up based both on the volume of passengers up and about and the disinterest from the staff. The airline would be blameless in the event of injury, even from a standpoint of effort stating that the seatbelt sign was on – they shouldn’t have been up.
Flight Attendant Empowerment Remains Out-Of-Hand
When September 11thoccurred, airlines were able to get away with stern treatment of customers by calling it a safety matter. The number of times a questionable “security” concern over the last 17 years has resulted in a passenger getting thrown off a plane (or dragged off of one) has become so common that it’s not even news anymore. It goes beyond Dao, just take a look at one of Matthew’s most popular posts in which he was forced off a flight to Istanbul for a safety concern because he took a photo of the in-flight entertainment screen.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s was just re-authorized (as it is every year) but new and improved for this year, verbally assaulting a crew member can result in the forceful removal of a passenger from the plane. Which makes sense because the lesson learned from Dr. Dao incident is that the police – wait, no they weren’t, they just had the jackets – should have had the authority to drag out and bloody the man. But what counts as verbal assault, is it in the eye of the beholder as the “security risk” was with Matthew’s photo incident?
I was polite with the FA but didn’t push it even though her response was curt and dismissive because whether I have the right to ask if a gate-to-gate seatbelt sign is necessary or a mistake is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the FA feels that I am a problem, a challenge, or perhaps that she just doesn’t like me asking the question. If so, I could have expected to meet police officers at SeaTac upon landing, or worse, divert if she felt particularly challenged. No matter how blatantly absurd the possibility of a gate-to-gate need for the seatbelts to remain on and in theory, no passengers out of their seats for a four-hour flight – it doesn’t matter, and that’s got to stop. The government should reduce the power tripping rights of rogue flight attendants using safety as a cover for dealing with problems they don’t want to handle as part of a customer-facing job. I should be clear that most flight attendants I encounter are great, and I have only seen a handful of people ever taken off a flight, but I shouldn’t have to feel like I am risking jail time or at least a long conversation with a police officer to ask why the seatbelt sign was on for four smooth hours of flight.
Have you been on a flight like this? What did you do about it? Was the flight attendant out of line, or should I have been more insistent?