Pilot Counsel

Seat belts and shoulder harnesses

October 1, 2004

The law offices of Yodice Associates are located in both Washington, D.C., near the FAA, and in Frederick, Maryland.

There are some operating and flight rules that we learn once, conform our practices to, and then seldom get an opportunity to review in detail. As time goes by, our memory of the specifics of the rules fades. Sure, we expect that our adopted practices continue to satisfy the rules. But do they? We are sometimes surprised by what the rules say when we are reminded of them.

The rules on the use of seat belts and shoulder harnesses fall into this class. They are found within the text of FAR 91.105 and FAR 91.107, and reading them in the raw could be a brain twister. I have found that these rules are easiest to understand and remember if we review them as they relate to three separate operations: briefing, notification, and use.

Briefing

Briefing is one part of the rules that seems to get lost with time. The rules specifically impose a briefing requirement on the pilot in command of an aircraft (but not some balloons and airships). They tell us that prior to takeoff, the pilot in command is responsible to ensure that each person on the aircraft is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten the seat belts and shoulder harnesses. Of course, some aircraft and some seats are not equipped with shoulder harnesses, in which case the briefing requirement applies only to the seat belts.

Pilots tend to become casual about the briefing because we often carry people who are familiar with the operation of seat belts and shoulder harnesses. But we shouldn't be too casual. There are accidents on record where a person in a panicky situation had difficulty releasing the seat belt. Be especially careful with first-time and inexperienced passengers.

Notice that the requirement is to ensure. The pilot need not personally conduct the briefing as long as he or she ensures that a proper briefing is done. The situation that is familiar to us all is the airline briefing that is routinely conducted by a flight attendant, not the captain. The rule allows you to delegate this responsibility to another person.

This is a one-time requirement. It applies only to takeoff. It need not be repeated during the flight. That's different from the notification requirement.

Notification

In addition to the briefing, the pilot in command must ensure that each person on board the aircraft (except those same balloons and airships) has been notified to fasten his or her safety belt and shoulder harness (if installed) prior to taxiing, prior to takeoff, and prior to landing. So there are at least three times that this must be done, and this too is a responsibility that may be delegated. Though, as we discuss later, the pilot in command is not responsible to ensure that the passengers actually use seat belts and/or shoulder harnesses, only to notify.

Crewmember use

In understanding the use requirement, it is important to distinguish between crewmember use and passenger use.

A pilot ("each required flight crewmember") must use a safety belt at all times during takeoff, landing, and while en route. On the other hand, an installed shoulder harness need only be used during takeoff and landing. The shoulder harness need not be used en route, though it is probably still a good idea. And, even when required during takeoff and landing, if the shoulder harness interferes with the pilot's performance of required duties, it does not have to be used during the times that it causes interference.

There are two other exceptions that don't typically apply to small aircraft certificated for single-pilot operation. A flight crewmember may be absent from his or her station (and hence exempt from the seat belt and shoulder harness rules) to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft. A pilot also may be absent from the duty station to attend to physiological needs (for those of us lucky enough to fly aircraft with such facilities).

Passenger use

Although, as we have said, the pilot in command has a duty to the passengers to ensure that they are briefed and notified, the pilot in command is not required to ensure that the passengers are actually using their seat belts and shoulder harnesses. Rather, the rules impose this requirement directly on the passenger. Passengers (remember, including we pilots who fly as other-than-required flight crewmembers, i.e., passengers) are required to use their safety belts and shoulder harnesses during movement on the surface and during takeoff and landing. Passengers are not required to use their seat belts while en route. However, it is probably a good idea to insist that your passengers stay buckled up while en route even though it is not required.

For seaplane operations, the person pushing off the seaplane from the dock and the person mooring the seaplane at the dock are exempt from seat belt and shoulder harness requirements even though the seaplane is moving. This exception also applies to float-equipped rotorcraft.

Child passengers

The seat belt requirement for children has been a subject for debate. It has always been the rule that a child under 2 years of age need not be fastened in a seat belt if the child is held by an adult who is properly secured by a seat belt. Older children are required to use a seat belt. But there is a little-known 1972 FAA interpretation, reaffirmed in 1990, that allows two children to share a seat belt. "As long as approved safety belts are carried aboard the aircraft for all occupants, and the structural strength requirements for the seats are not exceeded, the seating of two persons whose combined weights does not exceed 170 pounds under one safety belt where the belt can be properly secured around both persons would not be a violation of the regulations for an operation under Part 91."

More recently the FAA has been preoccupied with extensive rulemaking regarding child restraint systems aboard aircraft. The main concern was the use on airliners, but the rulemaking did have some fallout for general aviation. Since 1996, any child restraint system used in an aircraft, including a general aviation aircraft, must be approved specifically for use in an aircraft and must be labeled as so approved. This is something that has escaped general notice.

Topics Pilots