Travel Explainer

Emergency Evacuation

Weighing a full bladder against an illuminated seatbelt sign while in flight.

Fasten your SeatBelt
The seatbelt sign is on.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Christophe Testi/Thinkstock.

It’s happened to us all: You’re on a plane, and the seatbelt sign is on—but you really, REALLY need to go to the bathroom. Obviously you’re not supposed to leave your seat until the sign is off. But is it actually illegal to go to the bathroom?

Technically, yes. By the letter and number of the law, in this case 14 CFR 121.317(f), it’s illegal.

But in real life, there’s clearly some flexibility in how the rule is applied, since many of us have seen fellow passengers sneak off to a bathroom before the sign is off with no consequence. What follows is a guide to that gray area.

There are times when you absolutely should not ignore the seatbelt sign. Don’t get up if there’s obvious turbulence or if a pilot asks flight attendants to take a seat and prepare for a bumpy ride. And if your plane is taxiing, taking off, or landing, never, ever, remove your seatbelt or attempt to go to the bathroom. Most airline accidents happen during this critical phase of flight, and your actions may endanger everyone’s safety. This includes the time immediately before a landing begins—it’s possible that your overlong bathroom break could force the pilot to abort the approach. A useful rule of thumb: If you don’t see any flight attendants moving about the cabin, you shouldn’t be up either. Stay seated with your belt fastened.

But what if the seatbelt sign remains illuminated long after the plane has reached its cruising altitude? If you decide to risk a surreptitious mission to the lavatory, don’t ask a flight attendant for permission. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, distinguishes between flight attendants’ duty to inform and their duty to enforce. In general, the FAA emphasizes what information flight attendants must provide to passengers about federal regulations and when they must provide it. But the FAA is much less prescriptive in describing how diligent flight attendants must be in enforcing regulations—they don’t require flight attendants, for example, to lock the lavatory door anytime the seatbelt sign is on. Because of these incongruous expectations, flight attendants have evolved a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” detente: It would be negligent for a flight attendant to grant you permission to use the bathroom if the seatbelt sign is illuminated, but many of them aren’t likely to stop you unless they judge the conditions to be truly unsafe.

While we shouldn’t expect the FAA to condone this laissez faire arrangement, neither does the agency have a record of aggressively fining seatbelt offenses if the passenger was otherwise well-behaved. According to the FAA, in the last five years, the agency hasn’t taken any legal enforcement action against a passenger who was solely and allegedly in violation of 14 CFR 121.317(f). They did issue four warning letters outlining the penalties for this kind of infraction over the same period, but that amounts to a vanishingly small percentage of the more than 3 billion passenger boardings of U.S. carriers since January 2011—in other words, active prosecution of this rule isn’t a priority for the feds.

The FAA and pilots do, however, care about insubordination. If a flight attendant intercepts you while you’re en route to the bathroom under a lit seatbelt sign, do not ignore his or her request. Apologize, return to your seat, and buckle up. Because it’s very much illegal for passengers to disobey crew member instructions, and here the FAA has a much more stringent record of enforcement.  

In 2014, the FAA opened 143 “unruly passenger” investigations. (The pertinent regulations here include 14 CFR 91.11, 121.317(k), 121.580, or 135.120.) Some of those cases are still under investigation, but in the past year, the government has fined at least 41 unruly passengers, which is 41 more people than were fined solely for seatbelt infractions in the last five years. In addition to facing civil penalties from the FAA, these unruly passengers are often charged with disorderly conduct or other offenses by the local law enforcement meeting the plane upon its arrival.

Explainer thanks FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette, Transportation Security Administration spokesman Bruce Anderson, and the author’s former colleagues at Endeavor Air, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines that previously employed the author as a flight attendant.

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