The Brancatelli File



April 8, 2004 -- Today we should talk about many things: cabbages and kings, Condoleezza Rice and Big Six wings.

But just between you, me and the cabin walls of our next flight, let me ask: Do you want to die? Is your frequent flying really an elaborate, expensive ruse to disguise a death wish?

Or is it a comprehension problem? Tell me: What part of "Buckle your seat belt" don't you understand?

You'll forgive me if I'm angrier than usual this week. The news that at least a dozen fellow travelers were injured last weekend when a United Airlines jet hit vicious turbulence over the Pacific Ocean makes me crazy. The thought that three of them were shaken up enough to be hospitalized infuriates me.

There is no debate here. No shades of gray. No moral imperatives or civil-rights issues to balance. There is nothing subtle to comprehend. This is not about us against the airlines.

When you're flying, sit down, shut up and keep that seat belt buckled low and tight across your waist.

I cling tenaciously to the belief that frequent flyers are smarter than the average bear. You are people of influence in the business world. You travel around the world and experience things Joe Six Pack and Linda Lunch Pail will never experience. You are people of wealth and taste.

So why is it so hard for you to understand that traveling five or six hundred miles an hour in a metal tube cruising five or six or seven miles above the earth is risky business? Why can't you just accept that in-flight turbulence is dangerous and potentially fatal and that the simple act of keeping your seat belt fastened could keep you alive?

Why is it that people who wouldn't back their car out of their garage without fastening their seat belt suddenly feel invulnerable on an airplane? What possible message are you sending to the airlines by indignantly unbuckling your safety belt just for the sake of saying it is unbuckled?

I won't waste your time or mine by recapping what you may have already heard or read about last week's incident on the United flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. I won't bother massaging the facts about how many people have died in recent years due to turbulence (at least five since 1980); how many have been seriously injured (at least 1,000); how many incidents there have been (at least 400); and how many travelers suffer minor injuries each year. And I will not make a big deal of the statistics that say one in five airline injuries are related to in-flight turbulence.

All I will say is this: The United jet that departed from Los Angeles last Saturday was flying in clear skies about four hours from Sydney when it encountered turbulence and abruptly dropped. There was "not much forewarning and then the plane fell. A lot of people without seat belts on left their seats," a passenger told reporters after the plane's arrival. "It lasted a good minute or so," another said. "You could see people going up in the air and hear screams. It was pretty scary."

You missed those little tidbits, didn't you? The skies were clear over the Pacific, but the United jet hit a patch of turbulence and dropped. Just like that, three people--two flight attendants and a passenger--were injured. The seat-belt sign was illuminated but, obviously, a whole lot of folks were acting stupid on that flight.

This particular incident isn't even the worst we've endured in recent years. Sixty passengers were injured en route to Bermuda in 1999 when a Continental jet hit clear-air turbulence and dropped 500 feet without warning. "I saw one man flip right out of his seat," a passenger on that flight said after it landed. On New Year's Eve, 1998, another United jet cruising over the Pacific hit turbulence at 31,000 feet. The plane dropped just 100 feet, but one passenger was killed and more than 100 were injured and hospitalized.

So I'll say it again: Sit down. Shut up. Buckle your seat belt.

And, please, don't give me excuses. Don't tell me you need to get up and walk around. Of course, you need to walk around. No problem. Just unbuckle your seat belt, get up and walk around. Then, when you return, put your damned seat belt back on.

Don't tell me you need to get up to get a drink from the galley or hit the lavatory. You need a beverage or need to go to the lav? Just do it. Unbuckle your belt and do your business. Then go back to your seat and put the seat belt back on.

Wearing a seat belt while you're seated doesn't impede your movement around the cabin. When you want to get up, get up. But while you're seated, keep your damn seat belt buckled.

And don't you dare tell me about flight attendants who don't come to tell you to buckle up. Don't you dare tell me about seat-belt lights. And don't you dare tell me about what the FAA requires and what the airlines enforce.

Just sit down, shut up, and pull that seat belt low and tight across your lap.

We need to talk about cabbages and kings and whether pigs have wings and you need to be alive after your next flight to be a part of the discussion.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.