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The scene last weekend: three cramped people trying to sleep in three bulkhead seats with those annoying immovable armrests and a whole lotta legroom in front. Why not curl up for a nap in all that wasted space?

Now some airlines (eg. Qantas) are quite strict about not allowing sleeping on the floor, while most quietly tolerate it, especially for kids and when the lights are turned down. But what's the rationale behind the ban, and is it universal? "Safety" was all I could get out the JAL flight attendant last weekend, but a quick Google search found only lots of idle speculation, not anything concrete like eg. FAA regulations.

Obviously there are no seatbelts etc on the floor, so it's not a great position to be in if there's turbulence. But you're allowed to walk around the plane after all, and I'm not aware of any airline that actually enforces wearing seatbelts when seated and the seatbelt sign is off.

Edit for clarity: Obviously you need to get up off the floor if the seatbelt sign goes off, during takeoff/landing, etc. But I'm still waiting for a non-speculative justification of why you can't lie on the floor when the plane is cruising along smoothly and passengers are allowed to wander about the rest of the plane.

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+1 Interesting question but there is some room between not being allowed to leave your seat and not having a seatbelt for extended period of times. Making sure people are seated most of the time and have a seatbelt at their disposal (even if wearing it is not actively enforced) could be a reasonable approach from a safety standpoint (and a trade-off between constraints and safety is unavoidable). –  Relaxed Apr 22 at 9:19
I am not sure I fully understand, but if you're in the corridor floor you are also in the way of other passengers if they need to go to the toilet or even just strecth their legs. –  nsn Apr 22 at 12:46
Not the corridor floor (you'd be run over by a cart in minutes!), but in the "leg" space in front of the seats, particularly in a bulkhead row where there are no seats in front. –  jpatokal Apr 22 at 12:47
When I'm on transatlantic flights at night the flight assistants usually ask me to buckle up if I'm going to sleep and have the seat belt in evidence on top of the blanket. (Aer Lingus, United Airlines) –  Toni Toni Chopper Apr 22 at 13:42
Qantas Flight 72. A malfunction caused a couple of unexpected pitch-downs at -0.8g and +0.2g. 115 people were injured. I prefer to keep my seatbelt on. :) –  ntoskrnl Apr 22 at 17:19

3 Answers 3

There is no clear explicit rule regarding sleeping next to bulkheads. Why are some airlines strict about it? the usual "safety" excuse is used here and I can assure you this time the safety excuse is legitimate. In addition to that, passengers are only allowed to sit in "passenger seats", they are not even allowed to sit on crew seats, so this can be used as a reason to prohibit people from sitting/sleeping in places that are not certified for passenger use, from FAR part 121.311:

  • (a) No person may operate an airplane unless there are available during the takeoff, en route flight, and landing --
    • (1) An approved seat or berth for each person on board the airplane who has reached his second birthday; and
    • (2) An approved safety belt for separate use by each person on board the airplane who has reached his second birthday...

In addition to the above, there are rules that prohibit storing luggage next to bulkheads, because things there will fly in case of severe turbulence due to the space. The same thing can happen to sleeping beauties there. If this were to happen it will not only harm the sleeping person, but also other passengers. Also, when you are laying on the floor there you are next to tons of metal objects (seat legs and so) they are not really sharp, but I can imagine a simple contact with these metal objects either by turbulence or by mistake will lead to injury.

Anyway, in the airlines I work for, this is tolerated. I guess why sleeping there is tolerated in some airlines and not in others is the culture of suing. In the US if something happened to a passenger he/she will surely sue the airline, while in other cultures things are not like that, hence why airlines tolerate or not regarding this and other things as well.

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+1 for culture of suing. In the manual for my microwave, no prohibition of drying cats there is mentioned ;) and +1 for safety. Why only the system allows only one upvote! :D –  tohecz Apr 22 at 9:05
Otherwise +1, but I thought the main reason you're prohibited from storing things on the floor is because they'd be a hazard if you need to evacuate the airplane? –  jpatokal Apr 22 at 9:34
That's true as well, especially on evacuation routes such as next to emergency doors. Bulkheads are not always in these routes. –  MeNoTalk Apr 22 at 10:22
@jpatokal Even if the only reason was due to blocking the way during an evacuation, the same can be said of a person. That person needs to wake up, stand up, and be aware enough to either get out of the way or evacuate. In a chair, at least during that initial wake-up period they're out of the way. Still, safety would be the primary issue as you can be tossed around laying on the floor a lot more easily than sitting in a chair or even standing (where you can quickly brace yourself against a chair back or wall). –  Doc Apr 22 at 13:18
@Doc True enough for an adult, but for kids, adults are fully responsible for taking care of them in an emergency. Also, I have a hard time imagining an evacuation scenario where a floor-sleeper wouldn't have time to clamber into their seat first. –  jpatokal Apr 23 at 4:26

I've had it specifically announced on a flight was that it was for safety reasons, including:

1) Blocking access to the bathrooms
2) Preventing drink carts from moving up and down
3) Safety risk in the event of turbulence

This was definitely on a flight in Asia, but I'm sure I've heard it on a Qantas one as well.

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I don't see how 1 and 2 would apply if the floor-sleeper stays out of the aisles. –  jpatokal Apr 29 at 3:37
Well 1) if you're blocking other people in your row and 2) all you need is your feet to accidentally stick out :/ But yeah, given they were just announcing no sleeping on the floor anywhere, that'd be why they were all included. Mainly it's for your safety. –  Mark Mayo Apr 29 at 4:11

I've done it, next to an emergency exit even. But my seat was such that half of it was blocked by the emergency slide, and after asking the cabin crew they said it was ok for me to sit on the floor instead except when the seatbelts sign was on. That seat was later removed from the seating plan btw, guess I wasn't the first or last to complain about it. In any other situation, I've never seen the need to not use a seat, except for a few minutes of stretching.

Safety is a concern, as said already. Obstructing the passage of other passengers is also a concern. If you're sitting on the floor, passengers need to climb over you to get to or through the aisle. And if in the aisle, you're hindering cabin crew trying to serve drinks and stuff too.

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