One of the leading causes of accidents on airlines is easy to avoid if all passengers would cooperate, the Federal Aviation Administration says.
Air turbulence, some of which is invisible and unpredictable, is the leading cause of non-fatal accidents during flights, and injury usually can be avoided just by staying seated the entire flight and keeping the seat belt fastened, said Alison Duquette of the FAA.However, one-third of Americans routinely don't wear seat belts in their cars, so many also avoid wearing seat belts on planes when they can, she said.
"The flight attendants are not police on your flight," Duquette said. "They ask you to put your seat belt on, but some people don't. It's personal behavior that we're trying to influence."
Clear-air, unexpected turbulence -- when the aircraft suddenly drops or rolls sideways -- is not a frequent problem, but when it does happen the scene can look like a horror movie.
Anyone standing or sitting unbelted during severe turbulence will be thrown about, perhaps hit by the ceiling of the dropping aircraft or rammed into hard plastic overhead bins or into rock-hard elbow rests by every seat. Infants in parents' arms can be jerked away by the force and thrown into hard objects, which is why the FAA recommends using belted safety seats for them.
On Jan. 20, a Continental flight from Tokyo to Honolulu hit unexpected turbulence, causing injuries to 18 passengers and four flight attendants. One passenger had possible rib fractures.
United Airlines flight 826, also flying the Tokyo to Honolulu route, hit unexpected turbulence on Dec. 28, 1997, causing severe lurching sideways and a quick fall in altitude, which killed one passenger (by broken neck) and injured more than 100 passengers and nine of the 16 flight attendants.
In dozens of other reported incidents each year, persons in aisles were thrown around, causing head injuries, unconsciousness, fractured ankles and shoulder bones and broken or bruised ribs.
Recently United, the world's largest air carrier, joined with two technology companies to try to develop a sensor that would predict turbulence in time to order everyone back to their seats and to put on their seat belts. The idea is to use infrared waves ahead of aircraft that could detect turbulence in lower moisture air. Current technology can sense the air irregularities only in higher moisture air.
Federal law already requires everyone to wear seat belts during landing and take-off and when the "fasten seat belt" sign is illuminated during flight. Passengers refusing to wear their belts at these times, and who detain an insistent flight attendant from other duties, can be fined $1,100 per violation of interfering with the flight crew. Usually, there is no fine unless violence or verbal abuse is involved, the FAA said.
So the FAA has developed artwork for public service ads in airline magazines and in general interest newspapers and for brochures about the importance of infants using belted child safety seats and adults to use seat belts to avoid turbulence injuries.
The FAA does not require airlines to report incidents of passengers being injured during turbulence, so most do not. The Association of Flight Attendants, a union, has urged the FAA to require the injury reports from all airlines every time they occur to show the full extent of the problem.
Most airlines say they don't warn passengers during pre-flight safety instructions about how turbulence can be unexpected and cause injury. Most just urge using seat belts during most of the flight "for your safety."
Why not mention how turbulence can injure unbelted passengers?
"Why would you want to send panic and terror through everybody in the cabin?" said Southwest Airline spokesman Ed Stewart.
However, United says in its routine pre-flight safety presentation that it "strongly recommends" using seat belts at all times when seated "to protect yourself from unexpected turbulence."
Southwest flight attendants do use a variety of techniques, including singing, to give federally required safety instructions about seat belt use, exit locations, etc. to get passengers' attention. "You can make it entertaining and informative at the same time," Stewart said.
US Airways decided a couple of years ago to keep its "fasten seat belt" sign on all the time to remind people to keep them fastened while seated, but the captain still announces when it appears safe to get up to use the restroom or stretch cramped legs. Their safety instructions are given by a video with attention-getting music and graphics.
Carole Guzzetta, spokeswoman for the National Safety Belt Coalition, said in-flight seat belt use might increase if each passenger was given a brochure explaining how injury can be avoided during turbulence by remaining belted at all times.
Still, some people using ground and air transportation resist using seat belts, saying "Hey, it's my life -- my business," she said.
"Yes, it is their life. But . . . if you don't buckle up and if you do get into a crash (or air turbulence), the injuries are going to be a lot worse, and then society is paying either in terms of higher hospital costs, insurance costs, workman's comp -- all of that."
Flight attendants are vulnerable to unexpected turbulence because they are standing in the galley or the aisle during much of a flight.
The Association of Flight Attendants is working with air carriers to allow its members to stay belted in their seats longer after takeoff and before landing to reduce their chance of injury mostly from wake turbulence from other nearby aircraft.
The association obtained statistics from one major carrier showing that flight attendants of that carrier had more than 300 injuries in one year from air turbulence jostling. Pilots, by contrast, avoid turbulence injury because federal law requires that they wear seat belts at all times while operating the aircraft.
Duquette said the FAA is considering whether to require that all infants on aircraft under age 2 be secured by an approved child restraint system. An air safety commission headed by Vice President Al Gore recommended this safety procedure for infants.