Why do I feel like I’m revealing some massive secret with this post? The standard post-takeoff announcement on United (and some other airlines) includes the line “when the seatbelt sign is on, flight attendants are required to advise you to be seated.” Understandably many people interpret this to mean “you need to sit down when the seatbelt sign is on or we’ll divert the flight and have you arrested” in this post 9/11 world (and especially post 12/25), especially since the safety video says “passengers are required to observe all lighted signs, placards, and crewmember instructions.”
But that’s not really what it means. When the flight attendant tells you that the seatbelt sign is on just acknowledge them and go. Don’t ask the flight attendant if you may go. I observed this yet again on my flight from Tampa to Chicago on Saturday. A passenger really had to use the lavatory maybe 20 minutes into the flight, and he got up. The purser said “sir, I’m required to remind you that the seatbelt sign is illuminated and you need to be seated.” The passenger responded “I know, but I need to go, can I please use the restroom?” The purser responded with “sir, I just have to remind you that the seatbelt sign is illuminated and you should be seated.” At this point the guy gets flustered and says “but I really need to go, can I use the restroom?” The purser, this time with a wink, responded yet again with “sir, the seatbelt sign is illuminated, I just need to remind you of that.” At this point the guy sat down flustered.
So what’s the correct response? A simple nod with a smile works. Or otherwise “yep, I realize I’m going at my own risk.” The flight attendants are just trying to cover their own rears. If a flight attendant tells you that you can use the lavatory then the airline is potentially liable should you get injured due to turbulence. At the same time, if you don’t obey the instructions of the crew, they’re not liable.
Simple, right? So while I’m not suggesting you get up when the seatbelt sign is on, sometimes you’ve just gotta go….