“Flight attendants are required to advise you to be seated”

Why do I feel like I’m revealing some massive secret with this post? The standard post-takeoff announcement on United (and some other airlines) includes the line “when the seatbelt sign is on, flight attendants are required to advise you to be seated.” Understandably many people interpret this to mean “you need to sit down when the seatbelt sign is on or we’ll divert the flight and have you arrested” in this post 9/11 world (and especially post 12/25), especially since the safety video says “passengers are required to observe all lighted signs, placards, and crewmember instructions.”

But that’s not really what it means. When the flight attendant tells you that the seatbelt sign is on just acknowledge them and go. Don’t ask the flight attendant if you may go. I observed this yet again on my flight from Tampa to Chicago on Saturday. A passenger really had to use the lavatory maybe 20 minutes into the flight, and he got up. The purser said “sir, I’m required to remind you that the seatbelt sign is illuminated and you need to be seated.” The passenger responded “I know, but I need to go, can I please use the restroom?” The purser responded with “sir, I just have to remind you that the seatbelt sign is illuminated and you should be seated.” At this point the guy gets flustered and says “but I really need to go, can I use the restroom?” The purser, this time with a wink, responded yet again with “sir, the seatbelt sign is illuminated, I just need to remind you of that.” At this point the guy sat down flustered.

So what’s the correct response? A simple nod with a smile works. Or otherwise “yep, I realize I’m going at my own risk.” The flight attendants are just trying to cover their own rears. If a flight attendant tells you that you can use the lavatory then the airline is potentially liable should you get injured due to turbulence. At the same time, if you don’t obey the instructions of the crew, they’re not liable.

Simple, right? So while I’m not suggesting you get up when the seatbelt sign is on, sometimes you’ve just gotta go….

Filed Under: Advice
  1. Glad you posted on this topic. While it is not advisable to use the lavs when the seatbelt sign is on (there’s a reason it’s on), the flights attendants are not the masters of your bladder or your bowels. You are! If you gotta go, you gotta go. I try to time my bathroom trips so I don’t have to go while it’s on. This is especially true on US carriers, because there is an unfortunate tendency not to turn off the seatbelt sign until initial cruising altitude has been reached, which is excessive as far as I’m concerned, though I try to abid by it whenever I can, but visiting the lav prior to pushback.

  2. Wait until someone pee their pant and see what happen…….
    Aometime if you have to go then and can’t really hold it.


  3. I actually had to look this up in the CFRs.

    Seatbelts are covered under 14 CFR 125.211.

    Lighted signs would be covered under 14 CFR 125.217. 14 CFR 125.217(c) says, “Each passenger required by §125.211(b) to occupy a seat or berth shall fasten his or her safety belt about him or her and keep it fastened while any “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is lighted[,]” and paragraph (d)
    states, “Each passenger shall comply with instructions given him or her by crewmembers regarding compliance with paragraphs (b) and (c) of this section.”

    What it doesn’t say is the administrative penalty for non-compliance. Maybe a bump on the head while using the lav in moderate turbulence is enough? 😉

  4. I suspect that if you go to the lavatory while the seatbelt sign is on, and you get hurt, it would be really hard to sue the airline. Pee at your own risk!

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head. I have always found it interesting that the cabin crew continues to move about, and even serve beverages while the sign is illuminated, as if they are immune from the laws of physics.

    That fact combined with many pilot’s tendencies to leave the seatbelt sign on for over an hour at a time, in the absence of turbulence, make disregarding the FA’s sometimes inevitable. Throw in the increased pax/lav ratio on many aircraft and the seatbelt sign becomes merely a suggestion.

    Many airlines seem to illuminate the seatbelt sign in order to provide passenger service, part of a dangerous trend of using safety as an excuse for other operational requirements. If they just requested people remain seated during cabin service, that would at least be honest.

  6. Yet another lawsuit avoiding statement that undermines FAs authority when they really need it. I have gotten up early and gotten the warning. While I understand the FA is doing their job, I feel those around me learned that it’s possible to ignore FAs without repurcussions. Sets a bad precident for the infrequent traveller. But the pilots tendency of keeping the passengers “hostage” in their seats for over an hour with no turbulence makes my decision to disobey easy.

    On more than half the occasions, I’ve walked past FAs and they’ve said nothing.

  7. A UA FA told me recently that if a pax ignores his/her advice that the seat belt sign is on, it must be reported to the captain. Really?

  8. UA FA’S use this excuse so they could be doing less work, sorry sir I can’t help you with the luggage,get you another drink due to United and FAA regulation and on……


  9. I’ve been on some UA flights (mostly international) where the FAs were very strict about wearing the seatbelt. They harrassed people in the bathroom to return to their seats and shined a light on every person as they were trying to sleep to make sure the seatbelt was on.

    While technically it may only be a suggestion and not a requirement, if the FA gave any pushback about saying that I know I’m doing it at my own risk then I’d give in. It’s just not worth having police meet you at the end of the flight to sort out a shouting match that you got into with a FA.

  10. I am a Flight Attendant and after reading the comments on this, I think I should enlighten you all.

    We as cabin crew are required per the FAA to remind you of the seatbelt sign. If we see you up and about, don’t remind you, hit turbulence, and you crack your head open, the liability is on the airline. However, the second he/she reminds you of the illuminated sign, the liability is on you and you cannot sue for injury.

    As for the crew being up and about while the sign is on… the crew is usually released once the aircraft has exited ‘critical phase of flight’ which is either 10,000 or 18,000 feet. At this point, if the Captain feels it’s safe the crew are released and start prepping for service. however at this altitude nobody can guarantee stable and smooth air, so the seatbelt sign remains on until cruise, usually. No, FAs don’t ‘defy the laws of physics’ but workman’s comp is a hell of a lot cheaper than a lawsuit.

    And last but not least… Fines. Technically, a FA could contact the Captain at the first incident with a passenger and have that passenger taken into custody for noncompliance of crewmember instruction or interfering with the duties of flight crew. Obviously, that’s a little extreme. Most FAs won’t resort to that unless you are a constant nuisance. Just keep in mind: if you catch the wrong FA on the wrong day, your getting out of your seat could cost you as much as $10,000.

    Hope this helps!

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