Can You Use the Bathroom While the Seat Belt Sign is On? The Definitive Legal Answer

When a plane is on an active taxiway you need to stay in your seat, otherwise the captain usually won’t move the aircraft. But if you’re in the air, it’s another story.

As I explained nearly three years ago generally flight attendants don’t actually care if you use the lavatory while the seat belt sign is on. They have to tell you that the seat belt sign is on. They cannot tell you it is ok for you to use the lavatory.

I watch passengers, over and over, asking permission. The flight attendant cannot give you permission. Because what if something bad happened? That’s on them and the airline. But if they advise you that the seat belt sign is on and you go anyway it’s pretty much on you.

Now, of course, you must follow flight attendant instructions. So if they actually do tell you to sit down, you’d best do it. Most of the time passengers think a flight attendant is telling them to sit down when they’re just saying the seat belt sign is on. Occasionally I see flight attendants saying ‘the seat belt sign is on’ while making faces and motioning passengers into the lav.

If you can wait until the seat belt sign is off, that’s better. But if you can’t, and sometimes you just have to go, go. Try to avoid doing so right after takeoff, right before landing (first and last 5 minutes!).

And don’t assume a flight attendant is saying ‘no’ and jumping to offense, arguing, or threatening. That never ends well.

Instead just say, “yes, I understand, and unless you specifically tell me that I cannot use the lavatory I am going to go because it’s an emergency.” Then go, unless you hear instructions to the contrary.

That’s the practical real world answer. What about the law? Finally we have that answer too.

  • It is a violation of 14 C.F.R. 121.317(f) not to have your seat belt fastened when the seat belt sign is on. Civil penalties up to $10,000 could be assessed. However there has been no enforcement action taken against a passenger solely for violating this rule in the last 5 years.

  • Failure to comply with crewmember instructions violates 14 C.F.R. 121.317(k).

    An illustrative case is Wallaesa v. Federal Aviation Administration, 824 F.3d 1071 (D.C. Cir. 2016).

    A male passenger became infatuated with a female passenger and began to harass her. Flight attendants moved him away from her, but he continued to seek her out, ignoring the “fasten seat belt” sign and the repeated instructions of the flight attendants.

    An FBI agent who happened to be on the flight eventually intervened and restrained the passenger.

    The FAA imposed a civil penalty, initially citing both the seatbelt rules and the rules requiring compliance with flight attendants’ instructions.

    In litigation over the penalty, the FAA expressly took the position that while the passenger had violated the seatbelt rule, that violation “did not merit a penalty.” The agency contended that the passenger’s noncompliance with the flight attendants’ instructions did merit a financial consequence, and the various tribunals to consider the matter agreed.

So there you have it. As long as you don’t disobey a crewmember instruction in the process, you’re on pretty safe ground using the lavatory when the seat belt sign is on.

Most of the time a flight attendant will tell you the seat belt sign is on, which is not the same thing as telling you that you cannot go to the bathroom.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I would rather fight for more compassion than legal high ground, but thanks for the information nonetheless. As much control as we like to think we have over these bodies, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

  2. Good article. I have found that people in first class tend to do it often. Part of being in the privileged class.

    I feel that often the flight attendants pretend to not see you on the way. So they don’t feel compelled to instruct you.

    I do believe that sometimes the captain forgets to turn the seatbelt sign off.

    When you have to go and the light is on for 20 minutes of smooth air, it’s time to act. Of course in first or business class it is usually short trip to the restroom.

  3. Caveat: Gary Leff is not a lawyer. He couldn’t argue the law if a blind woman holding a scale was seated next to him in an aisle seat.

  4. Or just change how it works with US airlines to reflect the rest of the world

    * seatbelt sign for critical parts of the flight/turbulence – have to stay seated
    * sign off for for the rest of the flight – free to move around

  5. >I have found that people in first class tend to do it often. Part of being in the privileged class.

    Never miss an opportunity to fight the good fight. Karl Marx would be proud of you if he weren’t in the ground where he belongs.

  6. You should clarify that this only applies to flights on US carriers. Regulations are different elsewhere in the world and so may be the penalties for violating them.

  7. JetAway must be a female to ask that question. Most of the time, males aren’t sitting.

  8. My practice is that if the flight attendants are out and about while the seat belt sign is on, I will use the lavatory, if I need to. If FAs are seated with the sign on then I won’t use it.

  9. David says:
    May 7, 2018 at 1:06 pm
    Good article. I have found that people in first class tend to do it often. Part of being in the privileged class.

    – A notable percentage of toilet use in First Class is by people in Economy. Hopefully your scientific analysis and vapid judgment took this into account.

  10. Kudos to Compass (Delta Connection) on a flight a few days ago. We were on a 50 minute tarmac hold (PDX-SEA, which takes only 20 minutes to start with!), and the pilot turned off the seatbelt sign (permitting bathroom breaks) and allowed people to reenable their phones. Never seen that before. Very happy.

  11. Out of interest, what’s the “in practice” situation with European airlines – who are often more restrained in illuminating the seatbelt sign?

  12. LOL flew last night on SWA and the FA 3 times told this lady “I cannot give you permission to use the bathroom when the seatbelt sign is on”. I sadly let that lady suffer.

    @Paul AMAZING video

  13. @Sean M everything in the article references the US. The codes are all US, and they say that.

    Readers can use their contextual skills and logic to understand that US laws apply to… the US!

  14. @Wendy_Girl. True, Gary is not a lawyer but he was a well-qualified debater, so I have confidence in his arguing skills. I have countered plenty of lawyers who cannot argue and persuade and who would not know the law if it hit them in the face.

    @GaryLeff. Regarding the lack of enforcement in 5 years, is that due to a 5 year old regulation, or were there prior enforcement actions?

  15. I asked an FA directly about it once. She said “I’m required to tell you that when the seat belt sign is on, your should remain seated.”

    It’s DELIBERATELY riding a knife edge, so that most people that aren’t really about to bust, sit down. They don’t want to give make the sign completely meaningless. OTOH they don’t want to ORDER you to sit down, because they don’t want body fluids release outside the lav.

  16. @Matt – They CAN do that but you’d be surprised how many don’t – or assume that being US citizens that FAA regulations apply to them everywhere in the world.

  17. My rule of thumb is that if the FAs are seated, then I stay seated. Once they’re up and starting the prep for service, then I figure it’s safe to go.

    If F passengers are more likely violators, maybe it’s not that they feel privileged, but rather that they’ve just knocked back 4 or 5 cocktails, while Y folks were limited to 6 ounces of water.

  18. @swag – great point and very true. Had that issue myself. 🙂

    I was thinking another factor is most up front riders are more experienced. They’re aware the seat belt sign law is yet another sans-penalty, routinely violated, example of ridiculousness in law-making.

  19. I assume that the seat belt sign is on for inordinately long periods on US carriers because of litigious concerns.

  20. Thanks for the article.

    Actually, 14 CFR 121.317(f), which requires that you have your seat belt on while the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is lighted, only applies “during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing.” 14 CFR 121.311(b).

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