Flying isn’t as simple as it used to be. It’s still one of the safest, quickest ways to get where you’re going, but airlines impose a lot of rules that may seem arbitrary to first-time passengers.
For instance, you’ve probably heard flight attendants tell you to keep your trays and seats in the upright position. You’ve certainly had to endure the latest TSA security protocols. You might have wondered why you have to put your phone in airplane mode -- and what "airplane mode" even means.
The truth is, there are good reasons for each and every one of these bizarre requirements. Airlines don’t always have time to explain themselves.
Here are some of the most common rules you’ll have to follow on commercial flights, along with the reasons they exist in the first place.
First, though, a quick word on airline safety. The rules discussed below exist out of an abundance of caution. They’re there for the one-in-a-million incident. You’re far safer on a commercial flight than you are on a train, ferry, or car (and don’t even get us started on motorcycles). According to one estimate, reaching your vacation destination by air is 100 times safer than doing so by car.
It must be lonely to be a flight attendant. When they’re in the spotlight, no one pays attention. Still, they have to give you that pre-flight safety briefing -- it’s the law.
In the United States, federal regulations insist that “all passengers are orally briefed by the appropriate crewmember” on key safety issues. Globally, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends similar briefing materials. The demonstration will cover things like the location of emergency exits, use of seatbelts, and what to do if the oxygen masks deploy.
But what are we saying? You’ve heard all of that stuff before. The good news is that, while the ICAO requires all demonstrations to include the same basic information, it allows airlines to decide how to present that info.
These days, you’re just as likely to get your safety information wrapped up in a much more entertaining package. Airlines are recording high-quality videos, some of them star-studded, to hold your attention while they deliver the boring details. It’s the spoonful-of-sugar approach.
While the pre-flight demonstration doesn’t make for great entertainment, it’s still important, so pay attention. Should something go wrong, knowing what to do with the oxygen mask will be well worth a moment of your time.
What possible difference could an unlocked tray or a reclined seat make during a catastrophe?
Actually, quite a bit. Many airline safety rules are designed to speed up the (highly unlikely) process of an emergency evacuation. An upright seat creates a few more inches of space for the people behind you. If they need to bolt for the exit, those few inches could seriously slow them down. Besides, as CNN reports, if the plane gets a jolt, it’s far safer to be sitting straight up.
That still leaves the question of why we only have to forego our trays and recliners during takeoff and landing. Though airline travel is extremely safe, the accidents that do happen tend to occur during takeoff and landing.
In other words, lean back and enjoy your tray during the flight, but follow the rules when you’re close to the ground.
When you sit in the window seat, your flight attendants will ask you to make sure the shades are up during takeoff and landing.
Again, this is all about shaving precious seconds off an evacuation. During an emergency, crew members need to see the conditions outside. They don’t have time to open every window.
Keeping the windows open also provides another safety benefit. It makes every passenger into a safety observer at crucial times during the flight.
"There have been cases where passengers have noted technical problems by looking out on the wing or engines for instance. Of course, it happens very rarely," airline pilot Kare Lohse told The Independent.
Finally, in the rare event that something goes wrong, it’s helpful to have your eyes adjusted to the outside light. Vision takes time to adjust, and if you go from semi-darkness to sudden daylight, you might not see as well for a few important moments.
Of course, there’s another nice reason to keep your shades open, and this one has nothing to do with safety: you might get a peek at a beautiful sunrise to kickstart your adventure.
If you’re traveling with children, you might think that you’d ignore this rule in an emergency. After all, it’s parental (or grandparental) instinct to help kids before saving yourself.
Still, this rule is important -- and logical. If the cabin loses pressure, there won’t be enough oxygen in the air to keep you awake and lucid. If you don’t put your own mask on first, the lack of oxygen might keep you from being able to help others.
Just how quick does hypoxia (the medical term for low oxygen levels in the body) take effect? At high altitudes, you might have as few as 30 seconds to make a decision before getting confused or losing consciousness. That’s why it’s so important to ensure your own flow of oxygen before doing anything else. Even if you only take a few seconds to place a mask on a child, those few seconds could make a difference.
Again, loss of pressure is very rare, and it’s certainly nothing to worry about. If oxygen masks do deploy, calmly place them over your mouth and nose and try to relax. The pilot will head for an altitude full of oxygen-rich, breathable air immediately.
Before your plane takes off, the flight crew will tell passengers to turn off all electronic devices or put them in airplane mode. To some travelers, that seems like overkill. If wireless communications really affected plane equipment, why would airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi?
And if you’ve ever forgotten to put your phone in airplane mode during a trip, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that your plane did not, in fact, fall out of the sky. However, that doesn’t mean that the regulation is unnecessary.
Commercial aircraft are outfitted with sensitive equipment for navigation, and some passenger devices could potentially interfere with that equipment. That doesn’t mean that your iPhone is a dangerous weapon, but it could be a minor annoyance in some circumstances.
Even if smartphones don’t interfere with equipment, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to test every single phone, tablet, and computer individually before allowing in-flight operation. It’s much easier to tell passengers to turn their devices off.
On a more practical note, your phone won’t be able to get a cell signal in the air, since it will need to constantly connect to new cell towers. Leaving your phone on could conceivably cause issues for cellphone users on the ground, and the practice will certainly drain your phone’s battery.
In any case, you won’t be able to make calls, so go ahead and follow the crew’s instructions.
The emergency exit row offers some extra legroom, so if you like to stretch out when you travel, you might consider snagging one of those seats. Just make sure that you’re qualified for the job. Federal regulations require travelers to be able to locate the exit, comprehend the instructions for operating the door, and, if necessary, open the exit in an emergency.
Passengers in the row must be 15 years of age or older, and they must be able to comprehend the crew’s oral instructions (in other words, if you don’t speak the native language of the flight crew or if you have hearing issues, you can’t sit there). Additionally, if you’re disabled, you use an oxygen tank, or if you’re simply not strong enough to operate the exit, a flight attendant might ask you to choose another seat.
Don’t take that as an insult; they’re required by law to make sure that you’re up for the job. With that said, if you’re capable of handling the task, feel free to sit in the emergency row (and enjoy the extra space). Just understand that you’re taking on some responsibility.
The TSA’s liquids rule is frequently misunderstood, partly because it’s not very intuitive. Travelers can carry on 3.4-ounce containers of liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes, provided that all of those items fit into a 1-quart resealable bag.
To some, the requirement seems arbitrary. Why 3.4 ounces -- why not set the standard at 4 ounces or 3 ounces?
For a time, the rule was 3 ounces. You can blame the metric system for the change, since 3.4 ounces is roughly 100 milliliters, which is the international standard used by the European Union. The TSA’s original guidelines set the limit at 3 ounces but later changed the rule to accommodate international travelers.
If that’s not complicated enough, the TSA allows some liquids in larger amounts, provided that they’re completely frozen when they’re assessed at a checkpoint. The administration also admits that certain products -- for instance, toothpaste -- could have different standards, but the 3.4 rule allows officers to work more efficiently.
"As you could imagine, taking weight into consideration would be a wrench in the spokes," the TSA’s official blog notes. "I’m sure the public doesn’t want our officers using scales or conversion charts, etc."
That’s probably a safe assumption. For more information on the TSA’s liquids rule, check out this page.
If you wear gel shoe inserts, you may have learned about this rule the hard way. For years, the TSA warned travelers to leave their gel inserts at home. The reason? The inserts often contained more than 3.4 ounces (or 100 milliliters) of liquid.
That has changed in recent years, and the TSA’s website notes that gel inserts for shoes are currently permitted (Dr. Scholl would approve). Still, if you’re traveling internationally, you may want to switch to foam inserts to avoid an embarrassing situation during your check-in.
If you’re not willing to leave those inserts behind, try to get a note from your physician verifying that they’re medically necessary. Agents may ask to swab the shoes to check for explosives, but otherwise, you shouldn’t run into any issues.
If you’ve flown recently, you’ve probably noticed some strange signs. They tell you that, beginning October 1, 2020, your state driver’s license or ID card must be “REAL ID-compliant” in order for you to board the plane.
Granted, this rule hasn’t taken effect yet, but it does raise some questions. This goes back to 2005, when the U.S. Congress passed the REAL ID Act. This law established minimum security standards for state ID cards. To find out if your state is already compliant with the REAL ID Act, check this page on the Department of Homeland Security's website.
If your ID isn’t compliant by the deadline, don’t worry. You’ll just have to provide another TSA-approved form of identification.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that many of these rules are unnecessarily restrictive. If it’s any consolation, the airlines save their most obnoxious regulations for their flight attendants.
Passengers see the flight crew as the face of the airline, so many airlines have strict requirements for their attendants' appearance. Qatar Airways, for instance, doesn’t allow employees to have any tattoos whatsoever, regardless of whether or not those tattoos are visible. Southwest Airlines reportedly doesn’t allow visible tattoos, while Jet Airlines reportedly requires its employees to have “a clear complexion (scars, pimples, and blemishes [are] not acceptable).”
Oh, and if you’re working for American Airlines, be sure to bring your clippers. Their flight attendant guidelines are said to state that “noticeable hair in nostrils and in/on ears or underarms must be cut or otherwise removed.”
Some other requirements are more practical. Most airlines require their flight crew to pass basic fitness tests and maintain a certain body mass index (BMI) in order to work, and shorter applicants are often refused outright, since they won’t be able to help passengers get their bags into the overhead compartment.
The takeaway: passengers might have to follow a few apparently arbitrary rules, but things could always be worse.
Most airline rules make sense, once you understand their intent. They’re also designed to be simple; each day, about 2.6 million people fly, and that’s in the United States alone. Complex regulations wouldn’t serve much of a purpose, since most travelers would simply ignore them.
With that in mind, you shouldn’t obsess about the rules before your next flight, but make sure that you understand them. If you’re traveling internationally, look up the flight rules of your destination country, particularly if you’re traveling with prescription medicine or if you’re planning on bringing any exotic souvenirs back to your home country.
Otherwise, listen to the flight crew’s instructions and enjoy your flight. If you’re doing something wrong, someone will let you know -- just don’t expect a lengthy explanation of the rationale behind the rules.