Seat-back pockets — the next airline/passenger battleground?

by Janice Hough on August 28, 2009

seatback

The battle between the airlines and passengers regarding the amount of “stuff” (that’s a technical term) that passengers can bring with them is seemingly never-ending.

Checked baggage fees keep going up and up, and carry-on limits are more carefully enforced. The combination means passengers have a greater incentive to bring as much as they can on board, but to consolidate it upon boarding.

So, instead of bringing books and papers separately, many travelers will pack them in a carry-on, but then put the bag overhead, and the reading material in the seatback pocket in front of them. Others do the same with toiletries, craft materials, and other things they want to use in flight.

In some cases, passengers simply remove items from their larger carry-on, because it won’t fit overhead without that. Still others use the seatback for meals and water bottles.

The only real no-no has been laptop computers. Though it hasn’t stopped people from trying. I have been on several flights where flight attendants have asked passengers to remove their computers from the seat pocket.

Now this practice may be about to change. Apparently an FAA directive put out in 2007 says “NOTHING can be stowed in the seat pockets except magazines and passenger information cards.”

And the FAA has now reminded airlines of this rule. Apparently flight attendants in some cases have been telling passengers in some cases to take everything out of the pockets, including small items like eyeglasses.

A recent story notes that the FAA says if flight attendants make passengers remove all personal items from seatback pockets, they are “following our guidance, if they are enforcing this with travelers.”

It makes sense that seatback pockets not be overloaded, and I can certainly see how a laptop could become a projectile during bad weather or upon a hard landing. (Not to mention, do you really want to put an expensive machine in a lightweight pocket that may have all kinds of crud left there by other passengers?)

As a reader, however, who considers planes one of the last places left where I can enjoy a novel without feeling guilty, I have a hard time imagining why my paperback and some newspapers could be more dangerous than the airline magazines and SkyMall catalogs.

If it’s a question of books or other objects flying around the plane in case of turbulence, then it’s hard to imagine how the same objects in a passenger’s lap would be any safer.

At this point the directive seems to be enforced sporadically, and perhaps, if the rule doesn’t fade away, it will be modified to a more common sense rule limiting weight or number of things that can be placed in the seatback. On the other hand, when we think of airline rules, common sense isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

photo by dyobmit/flickr/creative commons

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  • Frank

    The only real no-no has been laptop computers. Though it hasn’t stopped people from trying. I have been on several flights where flight attendants have asked passengers to remove their computers from the seat pocket.
    ===============================================

    ok, everyone assume that BRACE POSITION. You think that laptop may fly out of that seatback pocket and KNOCK YOU UNCONSIOUS?

  • Frank

    I had a business lady onboard once. Very well dressed. Expensive clothes and shoes. She rang the call bell and I approached her. She says, “there’s something dripping on my shoes.” I look down at the seat pocket, open it up and yep, there it was. A VOMIT BAG. FULL AND DRIPPING. I looked into her eyes as I lifted it out. All I can say is, she was horrified.

    Another call bell. A mother says her small daughter was playing with all the items in the seat back pocket. She put in hand into the VOMIT BAG, and guess what? It was used. She pulled her hand out with vomit all over it. I gave her my bottle of PURELL.

    They are seat back pockets, NOT GARBAGE CANS.

  • Amy

    I put the things I want in my seat pocket in front of me so I don’t have to dig through my bag during my flight. I don’t need to have anything fly out, and I don’t need people seeing what is there. I’ve never been told not to keep something in the seat pocket. Get rid of seat pockets if it’s that big of a deal.

  • OTC

    Putting your hand in the pocket is tempting fate, I’ve seen anything and everything put in there.

    It’s not a trashcan people!!

  • Matthew in NYC

    On a trans-oceanic flight once, I was in business, it was night and the cabin lights had been dimmed. I was on the window, the man next to me had left his seat, I needed to use the bathroom so got up and left the row. Unfortunately, his laptop was in the seat pocket, plugged into the power outlet in the arm rest. I didn’t see the power cord and when I stepped through it the laptop crashed to the deck. I just put it back and hoped for the best. He used it later on, so I guess no harm was done. So, I would recommend against leaving a laptop in the pocket when you leave your seat, it’s much safer on the seat itself.

  • http://www.aspendew.com AspenDew

    Actually, there is no Federal Aviation Regulation prohibiting carry-on items in seatback pockets.

    There is an FAA Order from 2007 containing the phrase mentioned above. And that phrase was copied verbatim from an FAA Order published in 1998.

    Why are they only getting around to enforcing it now, eleven years down the taxiway? And why aren’t they fully enforcing it, if they’re going to insist upon enforcing any of it?

    More here:
    http://www.aspendew.com/?p=523

  • http://feistync.wordpress.com Feisty Tourist

    Interesting that this comes up now. On a recent trip of mine, the flight attendants on the way there asked that folks refrain from putting laptops in the pockets. On the way back, nothing was mentioned and I saw one in a pocket go unnoticed. My only complaint about those pockets (other than the nastiness), is that I wish I wouldn’t get stuck sitting with a broken one so often. I hate having it bang against me the whole flight – ew.

  • http://www.martinkubler.com Martin Kubler

    On a different note, does anybody else have the feeling that while more and more airlines limit the amount of luggage/hand-luggage they allow you to take for free, the amount of airline “bumf” (that’s a technical term to descripe the various magazines, cards, etc. that airlines display in the seatpockets) in seatpockets has increased?
    I wonder how much extra weight is added by having a duty free catalogue, an airline magazine, etc. in every seat pocket? Couldn’t such magazines be displayed upon entering the airplane so flyers who would like to read them can pick up a copy, leaving others who don’t want them to enjoy additional space in their seatpockets?

  • mike

    Well I don’t know if there is a rule or not but on RJ’s that I have flown on United for the past year or so the flight attendant mentions that you can’t have anything in the seat pocket and often enforce it. I don’t ever recall that comment on a Boeing or Airbus but always on an RJ flight.

  • Phil

    I completely agree that the seatback pockets are not garbage cans but no one has mentioned why they become that. On far too many occasions I have been on flights where drinks or snacks were passed out and then the attendants totally disappeared until just before landing when they rushed through the cabin collecting trash. When the flight recycles you often have to turn over only one kind of trash and wait until another attendant comes by for the other. On other flights they have passed down the aisle and I have held up my trash only to get a response “not yet.” While I don’t approve of leaving trash in the pockets there is often no other place to put it if one wants to get on with one’s life on the flight. Or one could risk the look of death for pushing the attendant call button…

  • Kate

    Frank, I agree that the full barf bags in the seatbacks are disgusting, but I have a view from the opposite side – the trip where I had to use 2 of them, and the flight attendants refused to take them away, bring a plastic bag for me to put them in, or anything else. I am so glad I didn’t have a seatmate, so I just put them in the other seat, up in First Class. Otherwise, I guess I would have to have put them in the seatback pocket. It isn’t a garbage can, but when there is no place else to put your trash, should we just throw it on the floor?

  • todez

    Interesting that they won’t let you put things in the seatpockets, isn’t it? Especially if it’s for your safety, like when you hit turbulence and items go flying. What happens to all of those heavy carry-ons you put under your seat? Do they stay in place? Doubt it!

  • Evan

    Besides the disgusting, drippy, unsanitary gunk hiding in seat pockets to ruin whatever you wish to store there, don’t forget an invaluable rule I’ve neglected a few times to my detriment.

    Never place anything in a seat pocket so valuable that you’ll really regret it when left on the plane. Perhaps those with the sharpest memories or best deplaning “processes” need not heed the suggestion, but otherwise, I highly recommend it…! People I know have lost work notebooks, iPods, magazines, phones/PDA’s, and more.

    Sounds so basic, borderline insulting, but it’s easy to neglect and pay for later.

  • kelley

    Interesting article, and comments. At 6’4″, and too poor for first class, that’s where my knees are – not room for much more than the Customs Declaration. Sounds like I’m lucky, for more than one reason, I don’t get airsick…

  • Lila Davis

    What is equally frustrating is having the flight attendant tell me I must put away my small crochet project (baby cap for premature baby) for takeoff/landing but the person next to me is reading a large hard back book.

  • Frank

    Kate August 29, 2009 at 10:32 am
    Frank, I agree that the full barf bags in the seatbacks are disgusting, but I have a view from the opposite side – the trip where I had to use 2 of them, and the flight attendants refused to take them away, bring a plastic bag for me to put them in, or anything else
    ====================================================

    Wow, that’s surprising that the F/A’s didnt at least give you a plastic bag, that’s what I generally do. It’s INSIDE the plastic bag and should really pose no danger to the F/A as they take it away and dispose of it in the lavatory. (body fluids can be handled safely)

    ————————————————————————————

    Phil August 29, 2009 at 9:59 am
    . On far too many occasions I have been on flights where drinks or snacks were passed out and then the attendants totally disappeared until just before landing when they rushed through the cabin collecting trash. On other flights they have passed down the aisle and I have held up my trash only to get a response “not yet”.
    ====================================================

    Totally disappeared? or working the rest of the cabin behind your seat. Are you sure? F/A’s get a break after the service and garbage pick up. Mostly during the Movie. Seriously, most F/A’s always bring a garbage bag with them when they venture into the aisle. WE KNOW someone has garbage to pick up. Seriously, COUNT THE NUMBER OF TIMES A FLIGHT ATTENDANT walks through the aisle next time you fly. It’s NUMEROUS, with and without a garbage bag.

    The “NOT YET” response would mean to me that the F/A’s are still serving the rest of the cabin. WE DO NOT want to “TOUCH” garbage while “SERVING” other passengers.

    And, finally, on final approach, when we prepare the cabin for landing, one of the FAA requirements is that ALL SERVICE ITEMS to returned to the F/A’s prior to landing. Why couldnt YOU reach into the seat back pocket at that time and HAND OVER your garbage? Because you treat the aircraft worse then your homes. You think a sea of cleaners are coming on anyway. I tell you what, a FILTHY CABIN can FURTHER delay the next flight that aircraft is doing throughout it’s day of travel.

  • Ed F London

    Several comments:
    Had to chuckle on a Virgin flight from NBO to LHR last week. A nice speech from the flight attendant about Virgin wanting to reduce waste etc and then, within 10 minutes, the flight attendants are passing out mints with mylar wrappers. All this during the final descent. And where does that non-recyclable wrapper go? Deep into the seat-back pocket.

    As for using the seat-back pockets: I’m a biggish guy and usually put my mags and snacks and headphones in the pocket as soon as I sit down. Often, in coach, with the seat in front reclined, I’d rather not have to try to dig my carry-on bag out from under the seat in front of me by using my feet (no place for me to bend over with normal pitch). And I don’t want to be getting up and down to retrieve from the overhead either.

    Finally, I don’t think I ever hear any of this on intra-Europe or African flights.

    TOO MANY BEE-WATCHERS WATCHING THE BEE-WATCHERS

  • Paula

    Sorry Frank – I’ve been on many flights where I am in a window seat with an empty pop can and wrappers on the tray table, but the FAs dash thru the cabin carrying a trash bag without even pausing to collect it. This is primarily on domestic and Caribbean flights. And yes, on longer flights I take my trash to the galley bin on my way to the loo.

  • JandM

    Guys whats all the fuss about, Ryanair removed seat pockets (or don’t have them built in their new planes) years ago – and no you can’t pay extra to get one! This means no barf bag horror stories

  • Frank

    Paula August 29, 2009 at 9:29 pm
    Sorry Frank – I’ve been on many flights where I am in a window seat with an empty pop can and wrappers on the tray table, but the FAs dash thru the cabin carrying a trash bag without even pausing to collect it.
    ================================================

    Paula, dont apologize. It’s great to get both perspectives, isnt it?

    You have an EMPTY POP CAN on your tray table. How do I know it’s empty? I dont. Therefore, you need to HOLD IT UP, implying you have garbage and the can is empty. As I pass through the cabin, I LOOK for EMPTY cups and used wrappers, etc on the traytables. I learned a long time ago not to interrupt someone and say, “Is that done?” TOO MANY PEOPLE, “snap” at ya. “NOOOOO.”
    Now, on final approach, we confront you because it’s required by the FAA not to have “service Items” in the cabin, to which we reply: WE NEED TO COLLECT that now.”

  • Jim

    Here is a possible solution, however it could be an expensive retrofit for current aircraft. Make the seat back pockets from CLEAR heavy duty materials and then EVERYONE can see immediately what is in the pocket. Regarding “throw up” bags, why not issue plastic bags to start with, rather than paper types and then you can easily dispose of them given the opportunity.

  • Ed

    @Frank,
    ok, everyone assume that BRACE POSITION. You think that laptop may fly out of that seatback pocket and KNOCK YOU UNCONSIOUS?
    ======================================================
    I kinda doubt that would happen, what with most airlines only giving you a 29 inch seat pitch…there isn’t much bending over you can do in those seats! In fact, there were times that I’ve dropped something on the floor and just gave up ever retrieving it because there is absolutely no way I can bend over in my seat far enough to recover whatever it was I dropped!
    And as for using the seat pocket for storage…well, back in the day when the seats were large enough to fit a person, you had room on your seat to have your book, and a few items out without crowding yourself out of your seat! And you used to get *REAL* food on an airplane, so this meant you didn’t need to bring your own snacks or food, so there again, it’s the airlines *Forcing* the passenger to come up with alternatives to what the airline no longer supplies! And unfortunately, that seat-back pocket is quite handy for those things!
    And you’re not going to tell me that on a 15 hour one way trip to Hong Kong, someone’s going to tell me I can put some of my personal stuff in the seat back pocket…that’s just ridiculous! Really, it is!
    Ed

  • CT

    My view is that since I paid for the space, I get to use it. Consequently I usually remove all the airline chum (except for safety card) from my seat pocket and put it in the overhead bin. I’m sure this drives airline employees crazy but I’m not interested in reading the airline or SkyMall magazines and they take up space I’d rather use for my own reading material and/or knees. Carrying all that heavy coated paper seems like a real waste of fuel, too.

    So far, I’ve never been asked to take my headphones, MP3 player, glasses, etc. out of the seat pocket, where they’re too small to be seen, anyway. The F/As’ attention is better spent on ensuring things like upright seats and trays, seat belt use (at all times if I were in charge), carryons including straps etc. out of the space window seat passengers will use to evacuate the row (although I’m planning on going up and over if it ever comes to that), etc.

  • Frank

    Ed August 31, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I kinda doubt that would happen, what with most airlines only giving you a 29 inch seat pitch…there isn’t much bending over you can do in those seats! In fact, there were times that I’ve dropped something on the floor and just gave up ever retrieving it because there is absolutely no way I can bend over in my seat.
    ===================================================

    Ed, you need to actually LOOK at the emergency Safety CARD the next time you fly. The brace position is………………….BEND FORWARD with your hands on the seat in front of you. Rest your forehead on your hands, while bracing the seat in front of you. (NOT bend over)
    The seat pitch is bad, but it isnt 29 inches….the average US carrier is 32.. The airlines added seats over the years to TRY and make a profit. Capacity, yield, Revenue. Same reason FOOD disappeared.
    Throughout my career I’ve been able to speak with Flight Attendants who have been in EMERGENCY EVACUATIONS AND CRASHES. All will tell you that carry-on items that are not secured properly become FLYING PROJECTILES, which in turn may kill. (a small purse weighing one pound in G FORCES will impact you if weighing 10 pounds!)
    I keep an eye out on the emergency exit row seat back pockets. tell people to remove it JUST FOR TAKE OFF and LANDING. Seriously, how hard is that?
    I know a flight attendant who was in this crash. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kiifVK92NA&feature=PlayList&p=9313019251869CF7&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=51

    MONA was on that flight. She’s always been an advocate for safety. And, that means carry on’s being stowed safely.

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