In this era of accessible airline travel, most of us are familiar with the standard takeoff procedure onboard planes. And while much of what flight attendants ask of us is obviously for our safety, some things seem to have less purpose.
For example, when we’re asked to place bags under seats or in the overhead locker, we barely bat an eyelid. It seems obvious that luggage must be stowed so it doesn’t block aisles or exits during an evacuation.
And while it’s less obvious why our window shutters must be open during crucial points of the flight, when you learn that the procedure simply allows cabin crew to look out for any potential hazards, it makes perfect sense. So why, then, do we have to move our seats to the upright position?
There are plenty of logical reasons why this might be the case. An obvious explanation would be that it’s for the comfort of fellow passengers during the flight’s most stressful period. But this isn’t so.
First of all, it’s important to point out that landing and takeoff are the most dangerous points of any flight. That’s because the airplane is closer to the earth, traveling at a slower speed and requires more pilot control.
Additionally, the density of planes in the area around the airport is greater than when the aircraft is high up. Statistics have shown that 29 percent of fatal incidents happen during landing, while 16 percent occur during takeoff.
So the layout of a modern plane’s seats is designed not only to promote comfort during a long flight. It’s also laid out that way to make things easier in case of an emergency. And, believe it or not, plane seating plans have come a long way since the advent of commercial flight.
In the beginning, passengers had it quite cushy, nestling down in an actual armchair when they boarded their flights. However, it was soon discovered that these movable pieces of furniture were pretty dangerous. So they were soon ditched in favor of seats that attach to the floor – much like what we have today.
And so, just like having to wear our seat belts during takeoff, having the seat in the upright position gives airline passengers the best chance of staying safe. Indeed, one of the main reasons passengers must adopt this rather uncomfortable position is that it makes the plane easier to evacuate in the case of an emergency.
The upright position also reduces the impact to a passenger’s head in the event of turbulence or a collision. By moving our seats just a few inches, we’re effectively making sure that there’s enough distance between our headrest and the skull of the passenger behind us.
On top of this, when the seat is at a 90-degree angle, it is locked in position. A reclining seat is able to effectively swing on its hinges, meaning it could catapult your head into the seat in front if there was a crash.
Studies have also shown that passengers relaxing with seats reclined are less able to get into the “brace” position. The brace position requires travelers to place their feet together and firmly on the floor, join their knees and place their heads on the seats in front, with their arms over their craniums.
While there are some conspiracy theories that suggest bracing is pretty futile, merely preserving the teeth in order to make it easier to identify dead bodies in the event of a disaster, there’s evidence that adopting the brace position does in fact save lives. In fact, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in 2009, the brace position was credited with helping ensure that there were no deaths on board.
So although it’s not very nice to think about, having the seat upright during takeoff gives airline passengers the best chance of survival if something goes wrong. Indeed, a spokesperson from the Civil Aviation Authority told the Independentnewspaper, “It has long been recognized that for safety reasons it is most appropriate for passenger seats to be in the upright position for take-off and landing.”
The spokesperson continued, “In the event of an emergency landing, passengers will be told to adopt the brace position. This position has been developed following extensive research and analysis of injuries sustained during previous air accidents. Passengers can only adopt the brace position if they are sitting upright.”
In fact, the seat is so crucial to our inflight safety that having lockable seats which allow passengers to evacuate in around 90 seconds is written into Federal Aviation Regulations. Before a liner can even get on the runway, manufacturers must prove it can be quickly and safely evacuated.
However, with the rise of budget airlines which tend to cram more and smaller seats onboard, there are some concerns that the airline plane seat is getting less safe. However, “The only way we can offer a low airfare is to increase the seating density so we can divide the cost of operating a flight among the greatest number of people possible,” Allegiant Air’s director of government affairs Keith Hansen told the LA Times.
But, just like car seats, airline seats are required to undergo stringent testing. During dynamic crash testing, a crash dummy is placed on a seat and propelled down a track with the same forces as an aborted landing or takeoff.
Not only does the seat need to be safe, it must also be fire-proof and lightweight. On top of this, seats must be tested on how they’ll react to vibration and – thankfully – they must also achieve a good overall level of comfort and postural support.
So, while it may sometimes seem that airplane seats are made specifically for our discomfort – especially when we’re forced to sit bolt upright during takeoff – a lot of thought has gone into these humble furnishings. Next time you’re asked to compromise your comfort at the beginning of a flight, remember – it’s for your own good.