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‘Why Do I Need to Keep Window Shades Open?’ and 5 Other Flight Questions Answered

Time for a refresher.

Have you seen photos of the Golden Age of Flying? Glamorous passengers reclining comfortably, dining on smoked salmon and caviar, all prepared on expensive and real crockery, while a cloud of smoke wafts around. Not a bag of nuts in sight! We might not get this pampered treatment these days—far from it—but flying is much more affordable now, and we have better technology (think wi-fi and movies). And more importantly, flying is the safest mode of transportation.

We’ve heard the inflight safety briefing so many times now that we tune out the crew when they’re talking about smoking, phones, emergency exits, and window shades. As boring as it may seem, every rule has a reason and we’re uncovering the whys here. We’re sure you know many of these, so humor us and consider this a refresher.

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Why Do I Need to Wear a Mask?

Since the airlines started enforcing mask mandates, there has been a spectacular rise in air rage incidents. Passengers simply refuse to follow the federal policy and almost two years after its implementation, aggression is still causing disruptions on flights. Airlines are kicking people off flights and banning them from flying, and the TSA is amassing fines from violators. Airline crew don’t want to get punched in the face, truly, but it’s a federal mask mandate and even IATA has mandated it globally. 

The reason why crew members are risking their sanity is that masks keep everyone safe. There’s ample data to support that wearing a mask properly can reduce your risk of contracting the virus. Planes have remarkable filtration systems and they remove particles from the air every six minutes. Since airlines have mandated masks, no superspreader event has been reported from aviation, making it safe for travelers—as long as you correctly cover your mouth and nose. 

An asymptomatic, unsuspecting traveler may be on board, sitting close to you in an enclosed space. If they’re wearing a mask and you have your face covered, it’s very unlikely that you’ll take the virus back to your family, to your friends, to your neighbors, and to your city. Breakthrough infections are being reported due to omicron, so your vaccination status shouldn’t give you a false sense of security. 

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Why Can’t I Smoke on the Plane?

There are signs everywhere. There are announcements every time you step on board. Airlines—domestic and international—don’t allow passengers to smoke on a flight. U.S. airlines started banning smoking in the late 1980s and by 2000, it was banned on all flights. 

Under U.S. government rules, smoking is prohibited on all scheduled-service flights of U.S. airlines. As a general matter, foreign airlines must also ban smoking on all scheduled-service flight segments in, to, and from the United States. Cigar and pipe smoking is banned on all U.S.-carrier flights (both scheduled and charter).

It took tremendous pressure from the Association of Flight Attendants to end smoking on flights. The association made two arguments: the detrimental health effects of secondhand smoke on crew and passengers, and the risks of fire from a lit cigarette. 

They were right on both counts. 

There is no safe level of secondhand smoke. It can cause nasal irritation, lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Back when it was allowed, airline crew breathed in toxic levels of smoke and worked through murky conditions on board. 

Smoking and vaping are prohibited, everyone knows that, but there are people who have a que sera sera approach to federal laws. A woman was kicked off a Spirit flight this August when she was caught smoking on board. This is why planes still have ashtrays on lavatory doors. It’s not because the aircraft are old; it’s because there will be passengers who’ll try to puff it up and you need a safe way to put it out. Throwing the stub in the lavatory trash filled with paper can result in a fire, so ashtrays are a legal requirement for planes and they may not be allowed to take off if ashtrays are missing.

There is cause for concern. In 1973, a plane flying from Brazil to France crashed a few minutes from Orly Airport. The pilot had reported a fire on board and requested an emergency landing, but the plane crash-landed into a field before he could make it to the runway–122 people were killed. The fire, it’s suspected, started in the lavatory due to a cigarette thrown in the trash. 

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Why Do I Need to Keep Window Shades Open and the Seat Upright?

Airline crew march down the aisle before every take-off and landing, issuing orders to passengers to open their window shades, lock their tray tables, and upright their seats. Three simple tasks that can save lives.

In case of an emergency evacuation, tray tables and reclined seats can prove to be a barrier. A tray or reclined seat can also hamper the “brace” position you need to take in case of a crash landing (if you have seen the movie Sully, you know what it is). As for window shades, it is important for the crew to be able to see what the conditions are outside and determine what door to use. In an emergency when you have 90 seconds to disembark, the crew needs to be sure about the exits—you can’t open a particular emergency exit if an engine is on fire or a wing is broken. Keeping the shades open also gives an extra pair of eyes to passengers who can report if something’s amiss. 

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Who Can’t Occupy Emergency Exit Seats?

Now that we’ve talked about emergency evacuations, you know that airlines take this very seriously. It’s a federal regulation that passengers who occupy the exit row seats are capable of operating the exit. That’s why passengers need to be 15 years or older; have strength, mobility, visual and oral capacity; ability to comprehend and follow commands; and ability to impart information in English to other passengers. You may be asked to reseat by the flight attendant if you don’t meet this criteria. You may also be relocated if you’re traveling with a child or a pet. (Here’s Southwest’s primer on emergency row seating.) This is required by law, so no amount of bemoaning about legroom or the extra dollars you paid for the seat will sway the crew.

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Why Can’t I Use My Mobile Phones?

All electronics need to be put on airplane mode. Some years ago, you were asked to switch them off and keep them that way through the flight. Now you can use them on airplane mode (play games or listen to music) and flights also offer wi-fi.

Mobile phone signals can interfere with the flight’s navigational systems. Business Insider quoted a pilot explaining, “It’s never been proven that a mobile phone signal has interfered with the navigation performance of the aircraft. But just because it’s never happened doesn’t mean it will never happen.”

Airlines like to err on the side of caution—that’s why flying is the safest mode of transportation. So, don’t flout the airplane mode rule and leave that text unread. 

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Why Do I Need to Wear a Seat Belt?

It’s a fact that seat belts prevent injuries—in cars and on planes. The FAA reports that in nonfatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers and flight attendants. In fact, 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts every year.

Turbulence; small accidents while taxiing, take-off, or landing; and deceleration are possible when you’re flying. During take-off and landing, flight attendants will reiterate that you need to wear your seat belt, but it’s a good idea to stay buckled in throughout. Turbulence sometimes comes without a pilot’s warning and in such cases, it can throw you off your seat. You can land on an armrest or on someone else, or hit your head on the ceiling of the plane. For those who take it off as soon as the plane touches the ground, you should know that you can still get injured if the aircraft hits a stationary object (like another plane).