Can an Airplane Passenger Ignore the “Fasten Seat Belt” Sign?

I was on a plane recently, listening to the usual safety briefing, when I heard the flight attendant say that “it is a violation of federal law” to ignore illuminated safety signs, such as the “fasten seat belt” sign. I was surprised because, on another flight, I had overheard a flight attendant tell a passenger who wanted to use the bathroom while the “fasten seat belt” sign was illuminated that she couldn’t authorize him to get out of his seat but that she wouldn’t stop him either. The sense I got from that previous exchange was that the sign was essentially a recommendation. So, I decided to look into it.

It is a violation of federal law to ignore the sign. 14 C.F.R. 121.317(f) states that an airplane passenger “shall fasten his or her safety belt about him or her and keep it fastened while the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ sign is lighted.” The statutory basis for the rule is 49 U.S.C. § 44701, which allows the FAA to issue “regulations and minimum standards for . . . practices, methods, and procedure the Administrator finds necessary for safety in air commerce.”

The violation is civil, not criminal. The applicable penalty provision is 49 U.S.C. § 46301(a)(5)(A), which authorizes “a civil penalty of not more than $10,000” for violations of “a regulation prescribed . . . under” 49 U.S.C. § 44701.

Enforcement is extremely uncommon. This Slate article reports that “in the last five years, the [FAA] hasn’t taken any legal enforcement action against a passenger who was solely and allegedly in violation of 14 CFR 121.317(f),” but it “did issue four warning letters outlining the penalties for this kind of infraction over the same period.”

Ignoring a flight attendant is a different matter. There are several regulations that require passengers to comply with crewmembers’ instructions, including 14 C.F.R. 121.317(k): “Each passenger shall comply with instructions given him or her by a crewmember regarding compliance with” seat belt requirements. The Slate article linked above reports that the FAA is more likely to take enforcement action against passengers who disregard flight attendants’ instructions. An illustrative case is Wallaesa v. Federal Aviation Administration, 824 F.3d 1071 (D.C. Cir. 2016). A male passenger became infatuated with a female passenger and began to harass her. Flight attendants moved him away from her, but he continued to seek her out, ignoring the “fasten seat belt” sign and the repeated instructions of the flight attendants. An FBI agent who happened to be on the flight eventually intervened and restrained the passenger. The FAA imposed a civil penalty, initially citing both the seatbelt rules and the rules requiring compliance with flight attendants’ instructions. In litigation over the penalty, the FAA expressly took the position that while the passenger had violated the seatbelt rule, that violation “did not merit a penalty.” The agency contended that the passenger’s noncompliance with the flight attendants’ instructions did merit a financial consequence, and the various tribunals to consider the matter agreed.

So, can I go to the bathroom or not? Questions about the need to comply with the “fasten seat belt” sign typically arise when a passenger needs to go to the bathroom. This article for frequent flyers has some good practical advice: It’s better to wait if you can; don’t go right after takeoff or right before landing; don’t ask a flight attendant for permission to go, since they can’t give it to you; and don’t ignore a flight attendant’s order to stay in your seat. But if you really have to go, the odds of facing any legal sanction from ignoring the sign are slight.

Comedy. The comedy duo Key & Peele aren’t to everyone’s taste, but if you like them, their short entitled Turbulence is on point.