In other posts we’ve covered the numerous safety measures on commercial aircraft, and today we’re focusing on one that’s perhaps most familiar to passengers: the humble but vitally important the seat belt, its history, design, and purposes.
A Little Bit of History
Benjamin Foulois, a commander in the United States military learned to fly in the first airplanes purchased from the pioneering Wilbur and Orville Wright had the idea way back in 1911. He later recalled how after his flights, he decided to incorporate this safety element in those rudimentary models: “I said, ‘Fred [his gunnery officer], I want to get a belt to keep me on that plane. He said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘A belt about four feet [30 centimetres] long.’ , something I can strap myself into the seat with.’ That was the first seat belt invented.”
A few years earlier, horse-drawn carriages had already incorporated this device to avoid inconveniences when hitting on potholes on the roads. And although seat belts came into being almost at the same time as airplanes themselves, their use didn´t become more widespread commercial aviation until the 1930s.
In the years since, obviously improvements kept being made, and eventually – though it took a few years – the seat belt was brought from airplanes to cars. In 1948, Michigan automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker borrowed the technology from World War II fighter aircraft for his “Tucker Torpedo” – considered “the car of the future” but never mass produced because of financial and other issues. In 1949, automobile manufacturer Nash installed seat belts in 40,000 of its vehicles, but most buyers didn´t like them and requested they be removed. It wasn´t until the late 1950s that they became more commonplace (starting with Sweden´s Volvo), and mandatory seat-belt laws began being passed around the world in the 1970s and 1980s.
Uses of the Seat Belt
Do car and airplane seat belts serve the same purpose? Yes and no. Obviously seat belts have their reason for being right in their name: to protect the user’s bodily safety. But in cars they were literally a vital issue, and continue to be the focus of numerous awareness campaigns, since for decades they were uncomfortable, not mandatory to use, and even universally installed, despite being a literal lifesaver.
In the case of airplanes, let’s start with the essential: you have to wear them – certainly during takeoffs and landings, and if possible, during the entire flight. In fact, crew members never unfasten them whilst seated. But, unlike cars, seat belts in the air are used to prevent sudden movements at certain times during the flight, specifically when the plane passes through patches of turbulence (though fortunately, these rarely result in major movements which actually require restraint).
What the Rules Say
- The airline must ensure that there isn´t a single passenger who does not have a seat belt, and one that is in good working order.
- It´s mandatory to perform a demonstration of how to use seat belts while the plane is still on the ground.
- The crew must ensure that all passengers are in their respective seats and with their seat belts on during takeoff and landing.
- Likewise, the cabin crew will be secured with their own seat belts upon takeoff, landing, and whenever else may be necessary.
- One exception to the “one passenger/one seatbelt” rule is that of an adult and baby are traveling in it – and of course, both must be properly secured.
One Size Does (Mostly) Fit All
As anyone who has traveled onboard an airplane will recall, the seat belt has two anchor points and is adjustable. The length standard is between 78 and 125 centimetres (2½ to four feet). But special cases include people who need extenders which lengthen the belts up to 63cm (25 inches) more and must be requested from the on-cabin crew. Small children also have special smaller belts available, which must be requested at the time of boarding.