Question: Are there concrete rules for when a pilot must turn on the "fasten seat belt" sign, or is it solely up to the pilot's discretion?
-- submitted by reader Matthew Algeo, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Answer: If a pilot believes that conditions are, or are likely to be, such that passenger movement poses a threat, the fasten seat belt sign is illuminated. Exactly when those conditions are present is up to the captain's discretion.
Q: I was recently on a transatlantic flight to Paris and we were enjoying a 125 mph tailwind most of the way across the Atlantic. The ride was smooth with occasional (very) light chop, but the seatbelt sign stayed on for most of the crossing. Are there other reasons the sign would stay lit on such a long flight?
-- Bob - St. Louis, Mo.
A: If there were reports or forecasts of turbulence, then the captain may have decided to "play it safe" and left the seatbelt sign illuminated. One other consideration is that 125 knot winds are usually associated with a jetstream. Clear air turbulence can happen suddenly and without warning in jetstreams.
Q: Capt. Cox, I have been on several flights where the ride was between moderate and severe, and most times the pilot will explain or apologize for the unexpected rough air. Why do some flight crews explain the chop and others just turn the seatbelt sign on after the fact?
-- Robert, Retired Air Traffic Controller, Jacksonville Fla.
A: Some pilots, like every other profession, are better communicators than others. In addition, when the seat belt signed is switched on the pilots may have been busy with other duties.
I always tried to explain the chop to passengers but occasionally was too busy.
Q: Why do airline seats have 1960 car buckle designs?
-- Dave Kiffer, Ketchikan, Alaska
A: They are certified, and the regulators believe that they meet the requirements. Some of the new seats have airbags and more modern designs.
John Cox is a retired airline captain with U.S. Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.