Earlier I published my review of Air China’s first class, and in the report I noted how the pilots never turned off the seatbelt sign. Instead they just left it on the entire flight, and when there was actually turbulence they’d simply “flick” the button again, and the crew would advise everyone to be seated.
As I said at the time, this doesn’t seem like a policy that does much to promote actual safety. Of course it’s always a good idea to keep your seatbelt fastened while seated (as pilots almost always announce at the beginning of the flight), regardless of whether or not the sign is on. However, while turbulence can happen at any time and often isn’t anticipated, always keeping the seatbelt sign on doesn’t do much to help passengers get a sense of the risk of turbulence.
All of that brings me to a story from a few days ago, which I guess might explain why some airlines like to be overly cautious with the seatbelt sign.
The story dates back to August 11, 2016, when JetBlue 429 from Boston to Sacramento hit severe turbulence that caused it to have to divert to Rapid City, South Dakota. The incident sent 24 passengers and three crew members to a hospital.
Now there are two lawsuits against JetBlue for the incident, the most recent of which was filed this past Wednesday. It alleges that the crew “disregarded the threat of a major thunderstorm.” Per The Sacramento Bee:
“JetBlue then flew Flight 429 directly into that thunderstorm,” the lawsuit claims. “During this time, JetBlue chose not to advise its Flight 429 passengers to stay seated with seatbelts fastened.
“As a consequence, the thunderstorm’s sudden and severe turbulence threw passengers repeatedly about the cabin and into the ceiling. Many passengers and crew were unrestrained.”
Michelle Hill was one of those, the lawsuit says. Hill was returning from the restroom and had sat down but not yet strapped on her seat belt when the plane hit turbulence and “she flew up and hit her head on the ceiling,” the lawsuit says.
Ariel Pollack had her seatbelt on and was sleeping at the time, but when the turbulence hit “she flew out of her seat and slammed back down with a great force.”
“Only after the aircraft had flown into the severe weather did flight attendants announce to the passengers to be seated and fasten seat belts,” the lawsuit says.
JetBlue counters this by arguing that they were adhering to FAA safety guidelines and that the “alleged injuries” were caused by “the comparative fault of the plaintiffs,” which is an interesting defense. According to the NTSB, the flight encountered turbulence while maneuvering to avoid convective weather.
This is of course an unfortunate situation, though I also feel bad for JetBlue here. No matter how much effort goes into avoiding it, severe turbulence will happen occasionally. It’s rare, but it happens. I appreciate those pilots who turn the seatbelt sign off for a good amount of the flight, to make it easier to move about the cabin.
So I guess if going forward if we see more airlines take an Air China approach to the seatbelt sign, we know why…
What do you make of this situation? To what extent should airlines be held responsible for flying through turbulence, and/or not using the seatbelt sign?
(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)