Why Do US Airlines Leave Seat Belt Signs On For So Long? (Ask Cranky)


Who’s ready for another fun-filled Ask Cranky adventure? This time, it’s about a note that came in a long time ago. I was reminded about it, however, on my flight with Delta from Maui back home.

Have you ever looked into seatbelt light overuse? I think it could make for a great article.

Seatbelt light use is really irritating Delta and Alaska Air compared to British Airways and Iceland Air.

BA and Iceland Air turn off the seatbelt light soon after takeoff, while the plane is still climbing at a noticeable angle, and leave it off unless there’s pretty serious turbulence.

Alaska and Delta wait all the way until the plane is level and turn the light back on at the slightest vibration. They leave it on for about 20 min each time. It’s like a car alarm that goes off when a loud truck drives by. Totally pointless.

You can just ignore the light on Alaska and Delta and use the toilet anyway. You wouldn’t want to do that in a seatbelt situation on Iceland Air or BA.

I feel like overuse of the seatbelt light makes for a potentially more dangerous situation.

It would be neat if the FAA or airline groups could get together and fix this one.

Thanks for your great blog,
Erik N

Thanks for this, Erik. I agree with you completely. In general, I find that US carriers use the seatbelt sign far more often than others. So what gives? IAsk Cranky can actually think of two reasons.

1) It’s a liability issue.
I think it’s safe to say we live in a litigious society here in the US. If people get hurt in turbulence, they’re bound to sue for a lot of money. Because of people like that, I’m guessing that airlines in the US are more inclined to encourage pilots to leave the sign on for longer.

I’ll never forget a few flights I took with Varig back in 1998. On one, we were on a 747-300 from Sao Paulo to Manaus and the second the wheels were off the ground, that seatbelt sign came off. On our flight back in to Sao Paulo, I was lucky enough to ride in the cockpit on landing. The Captain was busy telling me all about his career when it got a little bumpy. He said, “it’s just a little windshear.” Then, just as we were getting close to land, he dropped the wheels and then made the move to turn on the seatbelt sign. That is NOT what we’d ever see here in the US.

For the most part, pilots in the US will leave the seatbelt sign on from takeoff until you reach cruising altitude. Then on the descent, it’ll come on somewhere north of 10,000 feet. If there are any bumps, it’ll stay on much longer.

2) Pilots forget.
If you have to go to the bathroom, there is nothing more important on earth than getting that seatbelt sign to turn off. But if you’re a pilot, it’s not at the top of your list. If there is turbulence, pilots will be quick to flip that sign on. But when the turbulence subsides, it’s not uncommon for pilots to forget to turn it back off. On my Delta flight from Maui, that was the response from the flight attendant. She shrugged and said that they probably just forgot up front. I went to the bathroom anyway and she didn’t care.

Regardless of the reason, is this really a problem? Pilots and training departments probably figure that it’s better safe than sorry. If the sign is on, you can’t go wrong. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. If the sign is on for too long, then people just ignore it. And that means you lose the one tool you have to keep people safe when you hit rough air.

An airline that uses the seatbelt sign sparingly is going to get prompt and uniform reaction when the sign does go on (or at least have the best shot at it). That means it’s not time to mess around. But an airline that leaves it on too long will be ignored, even if it’s serious enough that it shouldn’t be.

I’m with Erik in that I think this is a real safety issue. If the feds weren’t so busy trying to regulate stupid issues, they could focus on more safety-related issues like these. I wish the airlines themselves would pay attention as well, because it does seem to be an unsafe situation.

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29 comments on “Why Do US Airlines Leave Seat Belt Signs On For So Long? (Ask Cranky)

  1. Cathay Pacific won’t serve hot drinks when the seat belt sign is on. Now THAT’S a problem, when you need coffee in the morning after a long overnight flight..

  2. I wish there was more reason to the madness. Or at least that I knew what the reason was.

    I was on a CX flight (SIN-HKG) in J last spring. We took off in a thunderstorm – not a terrible one – and bounced along just about the whole way. Some bumps were pretty bad, at least to my untrained eye. The seatbelt sign was off for virtually all of the flight, and the service kept going. I was belted tightly in, watching the champagne glass and 10 tiny dishes on my table jumping up and down.

    Seems like there could be a better balance between belt on and belt off.

  3. Agree with eveything you said Cranky. And yes I have noticed a differance in seatbelt sign usage even among US Airlines. On one UA flight many moons ago one bump and the sign went on and stayed on. Other UA flights, get to cruise altitude and still having a few bumps, sign goes off. The only time I really pay attention is when the pilot says “Flight Attendants please be seated”. Then you know it will be rough.
    Foreign carriers-it goes off real quick after takeoff. Agree this is a safety issue.

    1. I flew from EWR to BHX with united and the seatbelt sign went off for ten minutes before dinner then stayed on for the duration of the 7 hour flight.

  4. on US domestic flights, airlines leave SEAT BELT sign on too long to minimize cabin service — less time for less, less service then to be offered, less free beverages handed out, less staff work — diminished or lack of service blamed on SEAT BELT safety.

    1. This isn’t true though. On just about every domestic flight I’ve been on, especially shorter ones, cabin service often starts before the seat belt sign comes off.

  5. Thanks for covering this. It is squarely a SAFETY issue — the boy who cried wolf. And in my experience US (and maybe Canadian) airlines are the only ones in the world to cry wolf.

    Maybe since the FAA isn’t doing its job the way to fix it is a class action lawsuit! :)

    1. The boy who cried wolf – a great description.

      I’ve read similar remarks regarding repetitive safety announcements on public transit. After a while people just tune the message out regardless of importance.

    1. Thats not a bad idea. Vibration sensors could be put at a couple of places throughout the plane, coupled with a feed from the altimeter. Pack a few logic rules around it and there ya go.

      Give the pilots three settings: On, Off, Auto. It’d save folks like Eric C & RBR from having to time turbulence or bug the captain.

  6. It used to be and I sure it still is, that F/A’s would have the captain turn on the sign during meal/beverage service so they could roll the carts down the aisle without a lot of people getting up and trying to pass.

    And on a short flight that seat belt sign can stay on the whole time.

  7. As a regional airline pilot (First Officer) I would say the Captain usually just forgets if the seatbelt sign never gets turned off in the first place. It’s the Captain’s discretion so I usually don’t have a say unless I want to keep saying “Hey, wanna turn the seatbelt sign off/on??” every 20 min etc. It gets annoying for me so I end up forgetting as well. We do have policies and the policy is very conservative so a lot of times any type of prolonged turbulence we see the sign stay on for a long time. Best thing to do is as the Flight Attendant and they can either call up front and ask the captain to turn the sign off or see what’s up.

  8. Did they also make the pilot wiggle the plane a bit to make it less obvious what was going on? ;)

  9. There is a difference between US and non-US carriers: at most, if not all, US carriers, the seat belt sign also applies to the flight attendants (except in case of emergency). You’ll notice that on premium foreign carriers the flight attendants usually jump up once the seat belt sign goes off and start their service preparations like closing the curtains between cabins. If the seat belt sign goes on during meal service on a foreign carrier, generally speaking meal service is suspended.

    Whereas in the US, flight attendants are generally free to be up and about while the seat belt sign is on, unless the captain asks them to sit down over the PA.

    So, it’s little surprise that the lights don’t stay on for a long time on foreign carriers, since if the flight attendants get annoyed with having to sit for a long time in apparent tranquil conditions, eventually one of them will pester the flight deck.

    What I don’t know is whether the difference in seat belt sign applicability to FAs is due to regulation, individual carrier policies, or just custom.

  10. They just forget? Sure. Control the plane. Communicate with ATC. Navigate. Fine. But, no excuse for not remembering what is going on with the “Seat Belt” sign. Like you’re forgetting about trying to avoid thunderstorms and heavy turbulence? We’re real live bodies back there! Some of us might be a little cranky, but so be it.

    Sure, sure, most do it all quite well. Shouldn’t be any exceptions.

    And, by the way, you UA-metal pilots. If you have Channel 9, turn it on. Sure, I know, you just forgot.

    OFF TOPIC: CF, the names and email addresses (whoever is the last commenter) are still showing in the “Leave a Reply” section. At least today, anyway.

    Thanks! And when you’re done, could you please fix our local gas company’s web site “bill pay” section? It’s such a mess!

    1. JayB – ARRGGGH. I thought I fixed this and now it’s back. I’ve now had to completely disable comment subscriptions while I figure this out. But I’ve found a great new solution which is going to be better. Stay tuned for that as soon as I have a chance to work on it.

  11. It drives me crazy the length of time that United leave that belt sign on. But we live in a lawyer happy, gun slinging litigious society here with people that pull the trigger at the slightest chance,:-(

  12. As someone who controls that sign…

    It stays on in the terminal environment (<18000) because that's where you're most likely to hit wake turbulence.

    On short flights it stays on until the FAs have their drink service mostly done, otherwise they'll never finish.

    Often it's on until at or nearly at cruise since I want to clear the highest cloud layers, which may be turbulent.

    On descent they come on no later then a fixed altitude or time to go by company policy.

    Forgetting plays a huge part in how long after turbulence it takes for the sign to go back off. I like to set a timer when it's smooth and reset it every time it gets bumpy. If the timer hits five minutes the sign goes off.

    Remember too that bigger airplanes flex more at their ends than the middle. The pilots feel it more than anyone else on the plane.

    That said, when I'm on United and feel the slightest burble I immediately get up for the bathroom on the assumption that the sign is about to be on for half an hour.

  13. Out here in Australia, we’ve got a healthy OH&S culture in most things, but thankfully seatbelt signs isn’t one of them. Most VA pilots will turn them off mid-ascent, and it’ll take some pretty egregious turbulence to get them to turn them back on. No change during drinks service, so you often see a small bathroom queue appearing behind the cart. QF are reasonably similar IME, but I don’t fly with them as often.

    Could be because we don’t have the same litigious environment as the US.

  14. Was clear air turbulence ever considered? Obviously is meteorological conditions the ride won’t be as smooth as clear skies, but CAT is also be a reason why quite a few leave the seatbelt sign on? It can be very dangerous to anyone not strapped in.

  15. I’ve noticed this too although to be honest I have very little problem with it.

    It is beyond me why people are so desperate to undo their seat belt when all they are going to do is sit there. They don’t desperately undo their seat belt when driving in a car so why on a plane?

    It annoys me more than anything when people undo their seat belt whilst the plane is still taxing to the gate. On the thousands of flights I’ve taken I’ve experienced planes brake suddenly, overshoot their gate, stop then suddenly move. People just need to wake up to the fact that the seat belt sign is on for a reason, often something they have little to no knowledge on the precise details. Nor do passengers have control of the plane or sight of turbulence monitors and air traffic control.

    If people are so annoyed with following safety procedures (which are there to protect you) then you can just slacken your belt a little. It is still fastened, protecting you but you might be a little bit more comfortable.

  16. Is this another case of pax using cell phones to “help” the pilot navigate weather and turbulence? Just because turbulence has appeared to have ended doesn’t mean it has – Weather radar or ATC could be telling the pilot that he’s about to enter another disturbance.

    Pax second guessing pilots regarding flight ops? Hmm …

  17. Alaska’s policy is to leave the light on most of the time because they want you to keep your seatbelt on when seated in case there is unexpected turbulence. This is not unlike keeping your seatbelt on in a car in case of unexpected collisions (my family was rear-ended Friday night, and I’m very glad we all had our seatbelts on!)

    On Alaska at least, you are allowed to get up and use the restroom while the light is on as long as the flight attendants aren’t trying to do beverage/food/snack service. That’s common sense. If the pilot has warning of any turbulence ahead, they usually make an announcement, along the lines of, “Folks, we expect to encounter some turbulence shortly. Please return to your seats at this time and make sure your seatbelts are fastened.”

    I think their policy is sensible and it doesn’t seem “nannyish” to me. It’s a very simple precaution that could save your life in the event of unexpected, sudden clear-air turbulence.

  18. There have been several times in the recent past on U.S. majors that I’ve seen the seatbelt sign stay on nearly the entire flight–at that point, one merely ignores it… placing oneself in violation of federal law to boot.

    I get the liability issues, but it’s simply ridiculous to leave the damn thing on for hours on end.

  19. When flying United Airlines, I’ve noticed that when the fasten seatbelt sign comes on, the pilot goes into the toilet. Is this for security? Also, don’t ask the flight attendant if it’s okay to use the toilet if the fasten seatbelt sign is on. They have been instructed to say no.

  20. US pilots live in constant fear of losing their jobs. They feel they are the cream of the crop. Many are from the military and are timid about making mistakes in the civilian world

    I was on 4 United flights in the past 2 days

    Granted 3 were on some garbage connectors, but the belt sign never came off the entire flight

    It was smooth

    They are just lazy and tired

    The US airlines will eventually falter to world competition

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