Last month I reported on an FAA interpretation that involved only one aspect of the rules on the use of seat belts and shoulder harnesses—the shared use of a single seat and restraint ( “Pilot Counsel: Safety Seats,” August 2012 AOPA Pilot). I noted that I had not reviewed the complete rules of FAR 91.105 and FAR 91.107 since October 2004. This is a good time for a more complete review. These rules are easiest to understand and remember if we review them as they relate to three separate operations: briefing, notification, and use.
The rules specifically impose a briefing requirement on the pilot in command of an aircraft (but not some balloons and airships). The rules tell us that prior to takeoff, the pilot in command is responsible for ensuring 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 cases 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 so 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.
In addition to the briefing, the PIC must ensure that each person on board the aircraft (except 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. The PIC is not responsible to ensure that the passengers actually use seatbelts/shoulder harnesses, only to notify.
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, which don’t typically apply to small aircraft certificated for single-pilot operation: A flight crewmember may be absent from his or her station to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft; and a pilot may be absent from the duty station to attend to physiological needs (for those lucky enough to fly aircraft with such facilities).
Although the PIC has a duty to the passengers to ensure that they are briefed and notified, the PIC 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 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, takeoff, and landing. Passengers are not required to use seat belts while en route. It is probably a good idea that your passengers stay buckled up while en route even though it is not required.
For seaplane operations and float-equipped rotorcraft, the person pushing off the seaplane from the dock and the person mooring the seaplane at the dock are exempt from seat belt/shoulder harness requirement even though the seaplane is moving.
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, as I noted in last month’s FAA interpretation, two children may share a seat and belt if it is permitted by the flight manual limitations, if the seat belt is approved and rated for such use, and if the structural strength requirements for the seat are not exceeded. If using a child restraint system in an aircraft, including a general aviation aircraft, it must be approved specifically for use in an aircraft and must be labeled as so approved.
Legal counselor John S. Yodice is a commercial pilot and flight instructor who owns and flies a Cessna 310.