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My Airplane Seat Belt Habit: Why I Never Unbuckle (And Why You Shouldn’t Either)

I never unbuckle my seat belt when I fly.  I always feel like a bit of an outcast, not doing anything when the seat belt sign goes off and you suddenly hear the click of hundreds of seat belts being unbuckled. But it’s not like taking your seat belt off gives you a ton more wiggle room. I really don’t see a difference in comfort with it on or off. With the recent incident during turbulence, it made me think about how most people don’t wear their seat belts when flying, and if there really was a reason you should always keep it buckled. I dug into some history of seat belts on planes and whether or not they do make a difference. This is what I found. 

Airplane Seat Belts

According to the FAA, seat belts were first added to aircrafts way back in 1911. 1926 saw the first regulation  which stated “safety belts or equivalent apparatus for pilots and passengers in open-cockpit airplanes carrying passengers for hire or reward.” By 1928, all aircraft were required to have seat belts, but wearing them was not required. The same article states that after several years of amendments, it wasn’t until the 1970s that wearing your seat belt during takeoff and landing was mandated, making it illegal if you fail to do so. 

Female flight attendant in air hostess uniform holding seatbelt while standing near passenger seats in airplane
Yaroslav Astakhov | Adobe Stock

Turbulence is one of the Top Reasons For Injuries and Death While Flying

You are much more likely to get injured (or worse) during turbulence than because of a problem with a plane.  A study published in 2021 by the National Transportation Safety Board found that “Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of serious injury for all aircraft occupants during turbulence-related accidents.” Many people assume if the sign is off, that means you don’t have to wear your seat belt, but AeroSavvy points out that when the seat belt sign is off, it “means it’s reasonably safe to get up and walk to the bathroom. On long flights, use the opportunity to stand and stretch once an hour to avoid deep vein thrombosis. As soon as you return to your seat, put the seat belt back on.” 

While only 7% of passengers admit to rarely wearing their seat belt when flying, that 7% is enough to wreak havoc during a flight if there is a bout of strong turbulence. It’s just not worth the risk. 

Experts are baffled as to why passengers won’t buckle up. Shawn Pruchnicki, aviation professor at The Ohio State University,  told the Daily Beast “I’m always amazed when I fly how many people I see seated with their seat belt off, or their seat belt completely loose and extended.”

Why Don’t People Wear Seat Belts on Airplanes? 

So if all of this data is out there, and seat belts are proven to lower your risk of injury during turbulence, why do people still stay unbuckled during their flight? A few common reasons are: 

  • Misconceptions about Airplane Safety

According to a 2019 study that looked into safety attitude and risk perception among air passengers, “Most of the passengers may believe that the commercial aviation incidence survivability rate are zero or low. Therefore, passengers pay less attention to what they should prepare for.” The same study found that men are more likely to have a laissez faire attitude when it comes to airplane safety. In other words, if you think nothing is going to happen, you are more likely to not wear your seat belt. 

  • Seat Belts are an Inconvenience and Uncomfortable

Similar to cars, some might believe seat belts are unnecessary for short flights or taxiing, overlooking the possibility of unexpected events during these phases. The desire to stretch or stand up during long journeys can lead some to avoid buckling up, despite regulations requiring passengers to be seated and belted during specific times. Several airlines and pilots even recommend staying buckled even if the light is off, but the vast majority of travelers ignore this suggestion. 

Are seat belts Unnecessary During Smooth Flights?

Passengers experiencing a smooth flight might feel seat belts are only needed for turbulence, neglecting their role in unforeseen emergencies. However, turbulence can happen at anytime. While technology is getting better at detecting strong turbulence coming up, it isn’t perfect. Turbulence is a leading cause of in-flight injury. A 2007 study found that most injuries and deaths occur to people who are not wearing their seat belts inflight. Aviation turbulence has risen 55% since 1979 thanks to global warming. 

Shocked unfastened man on the plane during turbulence levitates. Accident passenger who is not fasten to the seat.
milkovasa | Adobe Stock

Bottom Line 

My research made me feel rather vindicated when it comes to seat belt wearing while flying. Pretty much, unless you need to take a quick promenade around the airplane because of health issues, or you really need to use the bathroom, you should be in your seat with the belt buckled. The risk just isn’t worth it, especially these days with the rising rate of turbulence.

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