Shoulder Straps on Airplanes

On a recent United Airlines flight I was surprised to see that their new planes are equipped not just with lap belts, but shoulder restraints as well.

This just cannot make any sense.

First, planes virtually never crash. Second, when they do crash, it is unlikely that a shoulder restraint will be the deciding factor in whether you survive. Many crashes have an “all or nothing” flavor to them, with no chance at survival or almost everyone surviving.

Third, the evidence from car crashes suggests that lap belts are about 85 percent as effective as lap and shoulder belts — and a car crash is just the sort of impact where you might think a shoulder belt would be most useful because it keeps occupants from smashing into the windshield or steering wheel.


It's a pleasure to read Patrick Smith in this thread, civil flights discussions need badly debunking on every occasion.

from Catania, Italy


What about the problem with shorter people? When they go through turbulance, the straps will be higher than their head (if they're like little kids) which means they'll get their neck chopped pretty hard...


Its a advertising gimmick and show people they care extra about safety then other aircraft carriers. Need to check what is the increase in cost incurred and do passengers really care about such safety features.


This seems like it would reduce safety on planes. With the lap belt, I generally keep it fastened while I'm seated. With a shoulder harness, that thing would be off the second we reached flying altitude.

A. Patel

After the plane crashes and everyone dies, it would be easier to find the bodies :-).


I have to echo the sentiments of several people who have posted before. I think the most reasonable explanation is that they're basically just buying car seatbelts or from manufacturers who primarily make those, and that it of course gives the illusion of extra saftey. I'm sure there's enough people who get freaked out on airplanes to justify that even if it were at extra expense.

John, White Rock, Canada

Just two words: Football Helmuts!!!!

Brendan Bouffler

I would assume that since this is United we're talking about, they must have got the seat belts as a job lot in a yard sale, thence decided to use them both. They are United after all, they'll do whatever's cheap.


@22, brian,

Wouldn't you wanna
1. see that the Pilot's not making a smooth landing, or
2. how fast the ground seems to be coming up, or
3. make the super discovery that someone's on the runway and inform the airhostess/steward/ pilots?


Hehe, agree with ya on the comments... I've found it hilarious that people have to return to that uncomfy "straight up" sitting position, and boy, lifting those lids up on a bright sunny day, just over the ocean sucks!!!


I always thought the extra seatbelts that were available to cabin crew were there because the seats they sat on generally faced the tail end of the plane. Therefore in a take-off their momentum would cause them to buckle over a single lap seatbelt, but in a shoulder belt scenario, they are held in more securely.

This enables cabin crew members to sit in aforementioned seats and grin inanely at you during take-off without finding their grins near their knees.

Dr Bob

I think I can live with the shoulder belts. but...

/sarcasm on

Gee, I can't wait for airlines to install airbags - or the FAA to require them.

/sarcasm off


The probability of surviving an accident really depends on the phase of flight. Overall, the survival rate is around 50% (landings and takeoffs are survivable; anything else you pretty much bought the farm). Also, there are many industry types (pilots and flight attendants) who understand the need for some of these seemingly "meaningless" regulations, because many are based on events. Also, these people probably follow checklists and manuals more closely than those who worked for the industry a few decades ago. You probably could do a cost and benefit analysis to justify your position against the regs. - like checking airmen certificates and adhering to sterile cockpit - however the CBA will probably not detect the change of "safety culture" of the industry. In theory employees following rules, regulations, and procedures should reduce human errors. (Human errors are a greater threat than mechancial problems). They, however, must believe in the concept of regulations.


Ned Rubin

Levitt is Chicago-clever, but wrong. While air transport-category aircraft rarely crash, they do tend to stop suddenly on the ground (as in a runway accident or incursion) or land hard, short, or long, or encounter a sudden downdraft or suffer from a pilot miscalculation. And, as a blogger notes, there is turbulence aloft. To finish Levitt off: car crashes tend to be two-dimensional catastrophes whilst air incidents occur in three dimensions-unless on the ground. By the way, the FAA for decades has required flight attendants to don shoulder harnesses to increase the probability that they will survive and haul the pilots and passengers out of the aircraft. I say this from experience, as a former flight attendant and general aviation pilot.

Rhys Lewis

I thought the idea with the lap belts was to hold dead bodies in place to make it easier for survivors to get out.

Patrick Smith

Writes Zach in posting 35: "To all those who suggest that the belts are there to prevent you from smacking your head into the seat in front of you (i.e. as in a car crash), I pose a question: When was the last time you heard of a plane was in a front-end collision? Clearly, the belts serve the same purpose as the security checkpoints - the illusion of safety."

This comment couldn't be more right with respect to the security checks, but is *completely* wrong with respect to seat belts. There have been many, many aviation accidents in which seatbelts saved lives and/or prevented serious injury.

Patrick Smith

Keith M

They should make a law requiring a 5-point harness in all automobiles. Abolish air bags completely. I'd wager they cause more damage than they prevent. Especially for little old ladies that drive really close to the wheel.

Patrick Smith

Damon asks: "Just out of curiosity, anyone know how often the seats of an airplane have actually been used as flotation devices?"

The answer is, several times. The "water landing" question is something I've tackled in my column on Salon a couple of times, and it's covered in my book as well. Here's a link to one of the articles...

Water landings

Any other questions, feel free to shoot me an email via my home page.

Patrick Smith


I use the seat belt in cae I doze off and hit turbulence.(dont want to hit the ceiling)
If you are worry about surviving a crash, best bet is to get a good insurance policy before each flight.


Just out of curiosity, anyone know how often the seats of an airplane have actually been used as flotation devices?


I always feel somewhat naked in an airplane seat that has only a lap belt, we have had shoulder straps in our cars for decades. As far as maybe bumping into the seat in front of you, not to worry, the d*mn thing intrudes into your tiny zone ten seconds after takeoff and makes it impossible to move thereafter. Coach seats should not have a reclining position! Every time I have a look to see who did this to me, its some jerk barely 5 feet tall who wants the first-class experience in a coach seat. If you can, switch to an aisle seat at the bulkhead. I agree with #20, there should be 3 stacked bunk beds on long flights, the bottom ones cost more, the upper levels would be cheaper.