Why Airplane Seats Must Be Upright for Takeoff and Landing

The battle over reclining etiquette isn’t the most important thing to think about when you take your airplane seat. Keeping it upright during the flight’s most critical moments is. Here’s why you’re asked to do it.

Rows of empty purple United Premium Plus seats

No matter what cabin class you’re in, you’ll have to sit up straight at the beginning and end of the flight.

Courtesy of United Airlines/Wayne Slezak

The few inches of personal space taken up by a reclined airplane seat are some of the most valuable territory in the world. Wars have been waged over them. Much effort has been devoted to conflict resolution too (and, in case you’re wondering, there is a less obnoxious way to recline your seat).

But regardless of which side of the should-you-or-shouldn’t-you debate you come down on, we can all find common ground during two stages of every flight: those moments during takeoff and landing when we are all asked to keep our seats “in the upright and locked position.”

While it may seem like just a few inches of recline, it turns out that they are key when it comes to safety during takeoff and landing. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other global governing bodies require airline passengers to bring their seats to the “upright and locked” position during critical stages of flight. Being chastised by a flight attendant over an inch can seem petty, but like most other safety protocols in aviation there is a good reason behind it. The problem: It’s rarely explained properly or simply. That’s why people think it doesn’t make a difference.

Here’s why following instructions can be key for safe air travel in the unlikely event you are in a real emergency.

Unlocked seats can injure you or the person behind you

Airplane seats are designed so that when they are in a fully locked position, they provide strong structural support. You may have noticed this if you’ve been in a malfunctioning seat that still reclines after being placed upright. If an aircraft starts to brake (at high acceleration, especially), the seat is designed to withstand that force. But when not fully upright, even by just a hair, the seat could jerk forward or backward with tremendous force and velocity, causing injury not only to the passenger in that seat but also to anyone behind them. Seat belts aren’t enough in a situation like that; since they only go across your waist, your torso and head could be jerked around dangerously.

Reclined seats prevent access to the aisle

Another key reason why seats need to be fully upright and locked is so that the people in the row behind you can have clear access to the aisle for a swift exit. If a seat were to recline suddenly (or even break) without the ability to go forward, it could impede the exit of passengers in the row behind. Aircraft designers don’t even take a chance on that happening around exit rows. This is why seats directly in front of an exit row do not recline at all, as these would be key points of egress.

Planes are designed to allow for a full evacuation in less than 120 seconds even if only half of the emergency exits are usable. This may seem shocking, but that design is responsible for saving many lives in real emergencies. For example, when an Air France Airbus A340 plane overran the runway in a 2005 Toronto thunderstorm and caught fire, all lives were spared because the crew initiated an evacuation quickly.

This is the same reason why tray tables must be closed and carry-on bags must be all the way under the seat in front of you. Every second matters.

What about flat-bed seats?

The same rule applies for the safety of all passengers—no matter what cabin they’re in: Seats must be upright for takeoff and landing. In 2022, Finnair famously avoided this issue altogether when it remodeled some of its business-class seats so that they don’t recline at all. Instead, the seats are either fully upright or in lie-flat sleeping position, with no in-between (reviewers have said it’s comfy nonetheless).

Now that you’re informed, try not to give flight attendants a hard time when they ask you to return your seat to its “fully upright and locked position.” Knowing why they ask may be just what you need to take the request seriously.

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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