Saturday, July 29, 2006

Another Approach...

Earlier this year I wrote about some of the issues surrounding the use of the seat belt sign in a post called "The Turbulence Switch." I remarked that potential liability has caused some pilots to leave it on at all times, possibly decreasing safety by encouraging people to disregard the sign altogether. This is becoming increasingly common in the States, I think. However, a flight in Europe last week gave me the chance to see an entirely different philosophy at work.

Dawn and I were flying from Munich to Amsterdam on a KLM CityHopper Fokker 70. Very shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant announced that the flight crew would be soon turning off the seat belt sign, but KLM encourages passengers to use caution in deciding when to unbuckle their seat belts. Sure enough, the seat belt sign came off around 10,000 feet, and stayed off until the descent through around 10,000 feet. In cruise we encountered pretty decent chop several times, prompting the crew to change altitude - but the seat belt sign remained off. It was truely left up to the passengers.

This is quite different from anything I've seen in the states. There are several pros and cons to this different philosophy, but I'm not sure that safety is any different than what we have now.

The biggest pro from a flight crew standpoint is that under the KLM policy, you would not be held responsible for any passenger injuries. Here, if a passenger is injured while the seat belt sign is off, your actions are going to be quite scrutinized to see if there was any reason you should've suspected turbulence: Did you look at the Airmets? PIREPs? Did ATC pass along any ride reports? Didn't you know about that bend in the jetstream? Etc. Under the KLM policy, the decision is out of the flight crews' hands and into the passengers'.

But isn't the flight crew better qualified to judge if it's safe? you ask. Well, yeah. The passenger surely isn't reading Airmets or PIREPs, and they don't even have a view out of the front window. That said, the truely dangerous turbulence falls into two categories: big lumpy stormy clouds, and severe clear air turbulence. In the former case, it'd be pretty obvious to passengers to stay seated; in the latter case, even flight crew won't know about the existence of severe CAT, so even in the US many CAT incidents occur with the seatbelt sign off. In cases where CAT was predicted or reported, I think even KLM crews would turn the seatbelt sign on.

To my thinking, the safest option is a flight crew that continuously monitors the turbulence situation and leaves the seat belt sign off whenever it is less than moderate, coupled with flight attendants that enforce compliance with the seat belt sign. Like I previously wrote, most flight crews are considerably more conservative than that. That's great for protecting your licenses and job, but I don't think it increases safety. When the seat belt sign is unnecessarily on, it might as well be off for good, because you end up with similar numbers of passengers out of their seats. In this case, better to go the KLM route and remove liability from the flight crew altogether and allow people to use the lav without breaking the rules. Of course, in the United States' litigational environment, I'm not sure that this policy would survive the first lawsuit. "Whatayamean, personal responsibility!?"


Olli Vainio said...

Hi Sam,

I believe that most airlines in Europe currently do as you have described above, however, if turbulence is so severe that it really could be dangerous to the passengers, flight crew turns the seat belt sign on. To my knowledge, also KLM uses this policy but I'm not 100% sure.

But I can understand why in the states there's more pressure to use the seat belt sing in fear of legal consequenses. If someone here would try to sue because of seat belt sign being off, he(or she) would never win the case I think...generally people are expected to use their brains. :)

My first comment here btw, nice blog you have here, I've been reading it for a while now. :)

Sam said...

Thanks for responding Olli, this was my first time on an intra-Europe flight so I didn't know whether KLM's policy is standard or an abberation. I figured that if the turbulence was really injury-threatening the seat belt sign would get turned on.

It's interesting to note the difference in litigational environments. The US, being more conservative than Europe, supposedly places high value on personal responsibility - but that is certainly not reflected in our court system, at least not for civil trials. Like you say, nobody is expected to "use their brains."

I sometimes wonder if we should get rid of juries for civil trials in the US. Juries have consistently proven that they can be talked into disregarding common sense and awarding plaintiffs huge rewards no matter their own responsibility or the good intentions of the respondents.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sam.... Great Blog. I am really enjoying reading the articals that you are writing... Keep up the good work.

Personally I think that the difference in seat belt pollicy is one in which involves legal conserns more than anything else. Are he passengers more likly to go to court if they get hurt on a forign carrier.... so on and so forth. I do not think that it is just an issue that we see in the airline industry, but rather because of how civil litigation works in this country, anyone can sue anyone for anything. Hence a lot of the policies that come forth are one just to keep ous out of law suits.

Thanks again for the great Blog..... Andrew - ALK Pilot

ken - sydney said...

In my experience, pretty well all non-US airlines leave the sign off unless there is something approaching moderate turbulence while US airlines switch it on at the slightest chop.
I assumed this is company policy, driven by liability fears.
Interestingly, on Japanses airlines, the moment the sign goes off there is a deafening series of clacks as almost everyone undoes their belt.
Not sure why this is, but you can bet on it.