Viewing Aviation Regulations Through a Lens of Safety

Jason Taken
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2019


A basic understanding of aviation regulations helps to understand some of the most basic requests airlines make of their passengers. Air travel is hailed as one of the safest modes of transportation not only because of the advancements in technology and the training that the aviators go through before they get a seat in the cockpit, but also because of the many regulations that bind it. Understanding the basis of a particular regulation is necessary to elucidate why the requirements exist, although the pressures of travel on passengers may make them seem arbitrary or unwarranted.

Why do I have to stay seated while taxiing?

This question understandably frustrates many passengers. Picture being stuck at the gate for one reason or another, and by the time you finally board, and take your seat so the aircraft can push back, you require a visit to the restroom. The flight crew insists you wait, but it is an emergency. The captain comes over the intercom in a stern voice instructing passengers to remain seated, and has to stop the aircraft for this one passenger. But, nevertheless, you get up because you really have to go. Now, the airplane is number two for departure, but has to taxi out of sequence, and move to the back of line, until this passenger gets back in their seat. What gives?

First, the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) expressly prohibit it. 14 CFR § 121.311 expressly restricts aircraft movement on the surface unless “each person on board” is occupying an “approved seat or berth with a separate safety belt property secured about him or her.” This rule applies not just to airlines, but smaller Part 135 (i.e., corporate jets and business flying) and Part 91 (i.e., general aviation or private business flying) operations as well. So, when that passenger gets up to use the bathroom, they are actually causing the airline to be in violation of federal law. While this may not worry the passenger in their time of need, the airline can impose fines (and has) on the passenger for not cooperating with flight crew instructions.

The other approach is safety. The taxi process is a “critical phase of flight,” and during such phases things can go wrong very quickly. An abrupt stop, or even worse, a collision, can shift things about the cabin faster than one can react. This approach is simple, but it sheds light on the point the crew is trying to make. Even if the crew’s instructions don’t jive with the bladder of a passenger, it’s all for the right reason. Applying this rationale to having items stowed neatly under the seat in front of you, or in the overhead, yields the same result.  The lens through which most aviation regulations can be viewed is usually safety.

Why can’t I use my cellphone during flight?

Passengers on any of the major airlines have likely been told to turn off and stow electronic devices, and to make sure they remain in “airplane mode” for the remainder of the flight. The principal tale was that the cell phones interfere with radio equipment on the ground which could then interrupt navigation systems onboard the aircraft during flight. While this is unlikely in today’s day in age, again, the federal aviation regulations codify this requirement. The initial impetus behind that policy was in order for passengers to use such equipment onboard the aircraft, the airline had to prove that the use of a cell phone would not interfere with their navigation systems in order for them to be allowed. Given that the less expensive option was to just have passengers turn their devices off, that became the modus operandi of the skies. And, as passengers may have noticed more recently, use of cell phones is now permitted, due in large part to the increased reliability of technology and the realization that passenger cell phones will not interfere with aircraft navigation equipment.

Why is the flight deck door closed, now?

In the aftermath following 9/11, airport and aircraft security regulations increased to levels never seen before. This included additional requirements for flight deck security. Section 547 of Part 121 governs flight deck admission. Briefly, the pilot-in-command’s permission is required for admission to the flight deck. Additionally, and as you may have noticed, there are now cameras on the outside of the flight deck doors so that when someone knocks, the pilots can see who is seeking entrance. Moreover, when one of the pilots are in the cabin (outside of the flight deck), you will notice that the flight crew sets up a barrier to ensure that, while the flight deck door is unlocked, an additional barrier exists between the passengers and the flight deck. These enhanced safety measures ensure that no unauthorized access to the flight deck could occur. So, while it may be interesting to watch what the pilots are doing while in flight, that is now a thing of the past.

While the regulations are just that, some airlines have codified stricter requirements in their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). These requirements are just as good as law when it comes to being a passenger. So, depending on the airline, as this can vary around the world, you may see enhanced security requirements above what the law requires. Keeping that in mind, the crew has every intention of conducting the flight safely.

While some of the requirements established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) might seem cumbersome, viewing aviation regulations through the lens of safety can help one’s understanding of those rules when it seems onerous to comply with every single one. Many of the requirements were created as a result of some incident occurring in the past; even as of today there are many good reasons for each and every regulation.