In our continuing review of the flight rules that apply to general aviation pilots and owners, we last reviewed the rules of FAR 91.105 and 91.107 on the use of seatbelts and shoulder harnesses in October 2004. That’s because the rules have essentially remained unchanged. Now, however, the FAA has issued what it calls a “clarifying” interpretation regarding the shared use of a single restraint, which purportedly changes prior interpretations, and is worth noting.
To review, the most basic requirement of these rules is that “each person on board a U.S.-registered civil aircraft…must occupy an approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness, properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing.” And the rules have always allowed a child under the age of two to be held by an adult who is occupying an approved seat or berth even though no restraining device for the child is used. Where the rules diverge between FAR Part 121 operations (airline) and Part 91 (private) operations is that the airline rules require “a separate safety belt” around each person, as opposed to the private rules that permit the shared use of a single restraint system. The private rules recognize that some seat belts are rated for more than one occupant to accommodate side-by-side seating arrangements—that is, bench seats—in certain aircraft that are commonly used in Part 91 operations.
What precipitated the recent interpretation is an NTSB investigation of the 2009 fatal crash of a Pilatus PC–12 where 13 occupants including the pilot—six adults and seven children—were killed. The number of passengers was more than the number of available seats; there were nine seats including the pilot’s seat. The NTSB was unable to reconstruct the original seating positions of the occupants, but the bodies of four children, ages 3 to 9 years, were found farthest from the impact site, likely thrown from the airplane because they were improperly restrained. This caused the NTSB to ask the FAA to withdraw its prior interpretations that permitted the shared use of a single restraint system. What the NTSB was looking for was a rule or an interpretation that bars or discourages the “unsafe practice of allowing multiple occupants to share a single seat and/or restraint system that [is] not certified for more than one occupant.” Under previous FAA interpretations, “the use of a seat belt and seat by more than one occupant may have been appropriate only if (1) the belt was approved and rated for such use, (2) the structural strength requirements for the seat were not exceeded, and (3) the seat usage conformed with the limitations contained in the approved portion of the Airplane Flight Manual.”
The FAA responded to NTSB’s request with this “clarifying” interpretation. “The use of a seat belt and/or seat by more than one occupant is permitted only if the seat usage conforms to the limitations contained in the approved portion of the Airplane Flight Manual (AFM). In addition, before multiple occupants use the same seat and/or seat belt, if the pertinent information is available, the pilot in command (PIC) must also check whether: The seat belt is approved and rated for such use; and the structural strength requirements for the seat are not exceeded.” What is closer to what the NTSB is looking for is the emphasis in the clarification that “because it is safer for each individual person to have his or her own seat and seat belt, whenever possible, each person onboard an aircraft should voluntarily be seated in a separate seat and be restrained by a separate seat belt.”
In adopting this clarification, the FAA recognized the public comments that the structural strength requirements for a seat and the approval and rating for a seat belt are not always available to a GA pilot because this information is typically not included in the AFM. And, older aircraft do not have an AFM, but have an owner’s manual that contains even less information. So, multiple use is still permitted under the interpretations, but the onus is on the PIC to uncover the information necessary to meet these requirements, if the information is not in the AFM or the owner’s manual.
The FAA agreed with the NTSB that having each passenger use a separate seat and a separate seat belt can be significantly safer than having passengers share a seat and/or seat belt. With regard to children, the FAA also strongly encourages children to be restrained in a separate seat by an appropriate child-restraint system during takeoff, landing, and turbulence.
Legal counselor John S. Yodice is a commercial pilot and flight instructor who owns and flies a Cessna 310.