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Airlines which allocate seats often make announcements prior to landing to request passengers return to their allocated seats. What is the motivation for this requirement, especially since I have never seen the requirement rigorously enforced by the crew (by requesting sight of the boarding pass).


The requirement is not simply a polite way of requesting standing passengers return to their seats – for two reasons:

  • Crews are typically explicit in their language when giving directions, such as requiring standing passengers be seated. It is clear from the phraseology and emphasis given in the announcements that returning to the allocated seat is a critical component of the request.
  • On a recent long-haul flight, a couple seated in my row were offered to relocate to vacant seats in an exit row for the duration of the flight, provided they returned to the allocated seats for landing. (They were not, at the time, standing.) Furthermore, in the event, only one member of the couple returned; the other remained in the non-allocated seats (an example of non-enforcement).

Some possible motivating factors I have considered:

  • Weight distribution – ensuring the flight envelope of the aircraft is not exceeded during critical phases of flight. However, I have encountered this situation on wide-body jets on long-haul flights (e.g. A346, A388), where a handful of passengers, of nominal mass, being situated elsewhere in the plane does not seem cause for concern.
  • Collection of personal effects – if passengers relocate after takeoff, they may leave personal belongings at their original seat, unwittingly or not. A requirement to return to the original seat may:

    • trigger passengers to locate & take with them items left/forgotten at their original seat, reducing the cost of the airline returning these to passengers later.
    • improve the efficiency of disembarking by avoiding passengers who need to move against the flow to collect belongings elsewhere in the aircraft.

      However, I have encountered this after long-haul flights with tens of hours of turnaround time on the ground, so eliminating a few minutes from the disembarking time of some passengers does not seem a high priority (and, in any event, the effect of reducing the overall exit time would be in the noise and difficult to quantify).

  • Limitation of privilege (hence, revenue protection) – passengers in a higher cabin tier may benefit from certain privileges upon landing, such as the possibility to disembark the aircraft more quickly. However, crew are normally hot on ensuring passengers do not self-upgrade to a higher cabin, so this would not seem to apply.
  • Emergency preparedness – for example, ensuring there is a sufficient cabin crew to passenger ratio in all areas of the aircraft to meet emergency / evacuation requirements. Such ratios may be upset in the event passengers relocate far from their original seat. (If so, why is this not an issue when in the cruise?)
  • Passenger identification – air crash investigators often use seating manifests to identify remains of deceased passengers, so this requirement could be to ease any future investigation in the event of an incident on landing. (Similarly, what about the rare likelihood of an emergency which rapidly develops while in the cruise, without opportunity for passengers to relocate?)

None of these reasons seem to entirely justify the requirement for this routine request or its existence across all manner of aircraft types.


My questions

  • What benefit do airlines or the wider industry gain from this requirement?
  • Why is it not rigorously enforced by crews?
  • How do airlines which do not allocate seats to passengers satisfy the same requirement when there is no published seating manifest in advance of passengers entering the aircraft, or why are they exempt from such requirements?
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    $\begingroup$ I've moved mid-flight on assigned seating airlines and have never been asked to return to my assigned seat. The only reason I can see this is if there is a problem, it is easier to identify where your body was sitting at the time of the crash versus where they found you. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 27 '18 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ It also stops the arguments that can be caused by people taking someone elses seat (to get closer to an exit etc.). $\endgroup$ – Paul Smith Jan 15 at 16:17
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A few possible reasons:

  • In cases where there are a lot of people standing, you don’t want someone to go sit in the first available seat they find, only to have the original holder of that seat arrive a minute later (repeat as much as you like), causing confusion and delays. So in most cases it’s probably not that strictly enforced, it’s just a quick and easy way to avoid musical chairs at a time when crew are usually busy going around preparing the cabin for landing.

  • Some of the requirements (e.g. weight distribution) may be important on some aircraft and not on others in the same fleet. It’s much easier to have consistent language even if it does not apply in all cases. Note that even on larger planes, it may happen that weight could be shifted enough if the flight is not very full. I believe there was a thread on this topic not so long ago.

  • Sometimes a flight may depart with some equipment inoperative (I had the case once of a 747 with a faulty emergency slide for instance), you don’t want people in the affected area (which would only be a problem during takeoff and landing). There may also be faulty seats not immediately apparent, but which could become an issue during landing (faulty seat belt, missing life jacket, seat which doesn’t lock in the right position...). Those seats would have been blocked during check-in or boarding and nobody should have been assigned one of those seats.

All in all, I think it's more of a combination of factors and a "one size fits all" approach. Much easier to just tell everybody to get back to their assigned seats than to decide exactly if and when they really need to.

Of course, in cases where there are real specific security reasons (e.g. faulty seats), crew will usually double check they are not used and actually enforce the rule, but if they can save a few minutes at a busy time, that's always better.

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Its a matter of legal requirement (under the FAA, and I presume the EASA has a similar reg). Strictly speaking its really more important that the passenger returns to a seat. Generally you are asked to return to your seat as it can be assured its empty and available for you. Under FAA regulations you are required to be wearing a seatbelt for landing and thus must be in a seat

14 CFR 121.311 - Seats, safety belts, and shoulder harnesses.

(b) Except as provided in this paragraph, each person on board an airplane operated under this part shall occupy an approved seat or berth with a separate safety belt properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing. A safety belt provided for the occupant of a seat may not be used by more than one person who has reached his or her second birthday.

Weight and balance is important but not on a single passenger level i.e. on an airliner of decent size if a single passenger moved around it would be ok. If half the plane was empty and the passengers rearranged them selves there might be an issue.

How do airlines which do not allocate seats to passengers satisfy the same requirement when there is no published seating manifest in advance of passengers entering the aircraft, or why are they exempt from such requirements?

They are not exempt from the requirements but there are enough seats for everyone on the plane and as noted above its really important that you are belted in so taking an available seat will do in this case. On these flights generally speaking, you take a seat prior to takeoff and that somewhat becomes your seat for the flight. In my experience there is little if any mid-flight seat swapping.

Furthermore, in the event, only one member of the couple returned; the other remained in the non-allocated seats (an example of non-enforcement).

As noted above the policy is to be belted in, so the regulation was indeed enforced. The other member of the couple may have remained in the seat if they were the only person capable of preforming the exit row duties.

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    $\begingroup$ I figured it was to make identifying passengers easier in the event of a fatal crash. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Aug 27 '18 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @CrossRoads while this has been cited as being helpful in an investigation I have never seen anything indicating this is why people are asked to return to their assigned seats. $\endgroup$ – Dave Aug 27 '18 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave - minor reason I know, but in business class on larger aircraft, you want everyone in their allocated seats for landing so you can give their suit jackets back to them: identified by the boarding pass in the jacket usually. $\endgroup$ – Pete855217 Mar 29 at 15:20
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I always heard, informally within the airline industry, that it was in case the aircraft crashed, meaning it was important everyone was in their 'departure-control' allocated seat so they could be identified in the case of an accident. Weight and balance is less important at this phase of the flight (compared to takeoff), and the rule doesn't seem to be religiously enforced regardless.

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    $\begingroup$ Always learnt from where? Your answer seems to contradict the only one that cites actual regulations, which says that all that's really required is that everybody's seated and wearing a seatbelt. It also points out that many airlines don't actually allocate seats. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 29 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ "Learnt from where" - informally within the commercial airline industry. I'm not claiming it's some regulation, even if it makes some logical/technical sense. $\endgroup$ – Pete855217 Mar 30 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ OK -- I've edited that into your answer. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 30 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ One other less morbid facet to getting people to stay in their assigned seats before departure is to make any seating discrepancies easier to sort out. Dupe seats, or mismatched counts between the departure control system and the boarding pass readers are a nightmare for the crew or ground staff to sort out if people have moved around. It's often caused by one or two people slipping through the aerobridge without the boarding pass scan (eg. for families with kids, groups etc.). It has to be resolved to close the flight (at least on systems like Amadeus), as it looks like a Fail to board (FTB). $\endgroup$ – Pete855217 Jul 13 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ And yet there are plenty of airlines that do just fine without having assigned seats at all. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 13 at 8:03

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