Why Do Window Shades Have to Be Open for Takeoff and Landing?

There’s a good reason for keeping airplane window shades open when a flight takes off and lands. But not every airline requires it. Here’s why.

empty seat airplane and window view inside an aircraft

Open window shades help flight attendants, and passengers, spot any unusual occurrences during the most critical phases of the flight.

Photo by Tisha 85/Shutterstock

If you keep the shades on airplane windows open during your flight, they can provide spectacular views, and if you pull them down, you’ll get a little extra comfort when it’s time to nap. Granted, the debate about the etiquette of either choice is a heated one, but there’s another big discussion that those window shades spark: Should they be open or closed during takeoff and landing? Well, the answer depends on what airline you’re flying.

Which airlines require window shades to be open during takeoff and landing?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group that represents more than 300 airlines globally and helps direct industry policy, recommends keeping the window shades open for takeoff and landing as best practice, a spokesman told AFAR. This is in line with recommendations from the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international air navigation and aviation safety.

In practice, though, the decision is up to the airline—and in most cases, if you’re on an international airline, like British Airways, you’ll be asked to open the shades during takeoff and landing. But not on U.S. airlines: Very few of them make that demand.

Why? Because while the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets minimum standards for aircraft operations and safety, it does not have a requirement about shades. Instead, it leaves the decision to the discretion of individual airlines to enforce it—and most don’t.

In February 2022, United became the first and only U.S. carrier to request that passengers open their shades, but it quickly rescinded the policy in March 2022 in order to align with other carriers and provide more clarity for travelers. Even during that short time, though, it was not a requirement but simply a request.

In an emailed statement to AFAR, United confirmed that they still “encourage, but do not require window shades to be open.” The airline says it promotes greater visibility during takeoff and landing.

What is the reason for keeping window shades open for takeoff and landing?

There’s a logical reason for keeping window shades open during takeoff and landing, which are considered the most critical phases of a flight: safety. In the event of an emergency, flight attendants are trained to look for debris, fire, or smoke outside before initiating an evacuation.

Keeping all the window shades open makes that faster and easier to do, and it’s why most airlines make sure exit-row windows have the shades open during takeoff and landing, regardless of their policy for regular rows.

According to KLM, “In our flight manuals, flight attendants must ensure that [shades] are open at the emergency exits during take-off. This has to do with being able to check outside conditions in the event of emergencies.”

Passengers may have to help with this safety check, since there could be times when a flight attendant won’t be near an exit door or may not be in a condition to check themselves. So if you’re sitting in an exit row, you could be charged with observing the exterior conditions before opening the door.

There are a couple other benefits to keeping the window shades open during takeoff and landing. One is that an open window shade helps passengers’ eyes become better acclimated to the outside light, which is important in the event of an emergency. If it’s bright outside or dark at night, your eyes will already be accustomed to the exterior conditions should there be a need to evacuate. This is also why the cabin lights are usually dimmed for takeoff and landing.

Finally, if the window shades are open, emergency staff on the ground can see if there is fire or smoke inside the cabin during an emergency landing or crash.

Different types of window shades on different planes

On some regional jets like the CRJ-900 commonly operated under the Delta Connection or American Eagle brands, the first-class passenger in seat 1A is usually advised to keep the window shade open since the flight attendants do not have full-size windows in the galley and therefore will need the flier’s window to visually determine if it is safe to open the door in an emergency. On some regional jet planes, there may not be a shade on the exit-row window at all—that way, the flight attendant is ensured a clean line of sight.

Perhaps you have noticed that the exit-row window shade slides closed from the bottom to the top instead of the more traditional top to bottom motion. This is because the release handle for the door is above the window, leaving no room for the shade to be stowed in the up position. The flipped design also ensures that the window shade does not slam down inadvertently in a hard landing or crash. Gravity might pull it closed or it could get stuck, which would obscure the view.

Then there are new planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 that lack window shades entirely. They opt instead for an electronic dimming feature that still permits some view from the window without compromising shade. There is also a locking mechanism that the crew can use if they want the windows to remain transparent during takeoff and landing.

Has this requirement actually saved lives?

There have been many instances where passengers have noticed unusual events through their windows and notified the crew. For example, a United Airlines passenger on a recent Newark to Venice flight alerted the flight staff that substantial fuel was leaking from the wing and possibly prevented an inflight disaster. And in a British Airways incident in 2013, when a plane’s engine covers popped open after takeoff, the problem was visible through the windows, enabling the crew to make a quick emergency landing.

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