[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 101 (Thursday, May 24, 2012)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 30885-30886]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-12554]



[[Page 30885]]

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DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Federal Aviation Administration

14 CFR Part 91

[Docket No. FAA-2011-0628]


Clarification of Prior Interpretations of the Seat Belt and 
Seating Requirements for General Aviation Flights

AGENCY: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), DOT.

ACTION: Clarification of prior interpretations.

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SUMMARY: This action clarifies prior interpretations of FAA's seat belt 
and seating requirements. These prior interpretations state that the 
shared use of a single restraint may be permissible. This clarification 
states that the use of a seat belt and/or seat by more than one 
occupant is permitted only if the seat usage conforms to the 
limitations contained in the approved portion of the Airplane Flight 
Manual (AFM). In addition, before multiple occupants use the same seat 
and/or seat belt, if the pertinent information is available, the pilot 
in command (PIC) must also check whether: The seat belt is approved and 
rated for such use; and the structural strength requirements for the 
seat are not exceeded. This clarification also emphasizes that, because 
it is safer for each individual person to have his or her own seat and 
seat belt, whenever possible, each person onboard an aircraft should 
voluntarily be seated in a separate seat and be restrained by a 
separate seat belt.

DATES: May 24, 2012.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Alex Zektser, Attorney, Regulations 
Division, Office of Chief Counsel, Federal Aviation Administration, 800 
Independence Avenue SW., Washington, DC 20591; telephone: (202) 267-
3073; email: Alex.Zektser@faa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    On March 22, 2009, a Pilatus PC-12/45 descended and impacted the 
ground near the approach end of a runway at Bert Mooney Airport in 
Butte, Montana. After investigating this incident, the National 
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the following.
    At the time of the impact, the Pilatus PC-12/45 airplane was 
operating as a personal flight under the provisions of 14 CFR part 91. 
The pilot and the 13 airplane passengers were killed, and the airplane 
was destroyed by impact forces and the postcrash fire. Among the 13 
passengers were six adults and seven children. Because the flight was a 
single-pilot operation, eight seats in the cabin and one seat in the 
cockpit were available to the 13 passengers. Thus, the number of 
passengers exceeded the number of available seats. The NTSB was unable 
to determine the original seating position for most of the occupants, 
but the bodies of four children, ages 3 to 9 years, were found farthest 
from the impact site, indicating that these children were likely thrown 
from the airplane because they were unrestrained or improperly 
restrained. The NTSB noted that if the accident had been less severe 
and the impact had been survivable, any unrestrained occupant or 
occupants sharing a single restraint system would have been at a much 
greater risk of injury or death.

NTSB Request and Proposed Clarification

    As a result of the March 22, 2009 incident described above, the 
NTSB has requested that the FAA withdraw its prior interpretations of 
14 CFR 91.107(a)(3), which permit the shared use of a single restraint 
system. In response to the NTSB's request, the FAA proposed to clarify 
that Sec.  91.107(a)(3) permits multiple occupants to use one seat belt 
and/or seat, but that such use is only appropriate if: (1) The belt is 
approved and rated for this type of use; (2) the structural strength 
requirements for the seat are not exceeded; and (3) the seat usage 
conforms with the limitations contained in the approved portion of the 
AFM (14 CFR 23.1581(j)).
    The FAA received six comments in response to its proposed 
clarification. After considering the information provided in the 
comments, the FAA clarifies its prior interpretations of the seat belt 
and seating requirements of 14 CFR 91.107(a)(3) as follows.

Discussion of the Final Clarification

    For part 91 operations, Sec.  91.107(a)(3) requires that ``each 
person on board a U.S. registered civil aircraft * * * must occupy an 
approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, shoulder 
harness, properly secured about him or her during movement on the 
surface, takeoff, and landing.'' For commercial operations under part 
121, Sec.  121.311 requires that each person ``occupy an approved seat 
or berth with a separate safety belt properly secured about him.'' 
Under both parts, children under the age of two may be held by an adult 
who is occupying an approved seat or berth and no restraining device 
for the child is used.
    When Sec.  121.311 and Sec.  91.107 (previously Sec.  91.14) were 
first promulgated in 1971, the FAA clarified that the separate use 
provision for safety belts under part 121 was not intended to apply to 
part 91 operations. Rather, part 91 ``requires only that each person on 
board occupy a seat or berth with a safety belt properly secured about 
him.'' 36 Federal Register 12511 (July 1, 1971). The FAA has previously 
interpreted this provision as not requiring separate use of safety 
belts. See Legal Interpretation 1990-14. At the time, this allowance 
was permissible because seat belts were generally rated in terms of 
strength and some were rated for more than one occupant to accommodate 
side-by-side seating arrangements (i.e., bench seats) in certain 
aircraft that are commonly used in operations conducted under part 91. 
Thus, under the previous interpretations, the use of a seat belt and 
seat by more than one occupant may have been appropriate only if: (1) 
The belt was approved and rated for such use; (2) the structural 
strength requirements for the seat were not exceeded; and (3) the seat 
usage conformed with the limitations contained in the approved portion 
of the Airplane Flight Manual (14 CFR 23.1581(j)). See 36 FR 12511; see 
also 14 CFR 23.562, 23.785; Legal Interpretation 1990-14; Legal 
Interpretation to Mr. C.J. Leonard from Hays Hettinger, Associate 
Counsel (July 26, 1966).
    In its comment, the NTSB stated that the shared use of a single 
seat belt by multiple occupants is never appropriate because this type 
of use drastically reduces the safety of the occupants. The NTSB asked 
the FAA to interpret Sec.  91.107(a)(3) in a way that discourages the 
``unsafe practice of allowing multiple occupants to share a single seat 
and/or restraint system that [is] not certified for more than one 
occupant.''
    Because this is a clarification of prior interpretations and not a 
rulemaking, the FAA is limited in what it can do in this matter. An 
interpretation of a regulation cannot ignore the ``indications of the 
agency's intent at the time of the regulation's promulgation.'' Air 
Transport Ass'n of America, Inc. v. F.A.A., 291 F.3d 49, 53 (DC Cir. 
2002). As discussed above, when the FAA first promulgated the section 
that ultimately became Sec.  91.107(a)(3), the agency stated that, in 
contrast to part 121, part 91 did not require that each person have a 
separate seat and/or seat belt. See 36 FR 12511. Because the FAA cannot 
rewrite Sec.  91.107(a)(3) through interpretation, the FAA is bound in 
this matter by the agency's stated intent at the time of this section's 
promulgation--that a separate

[[Page 30886]]

seat and/or seat belt for each person is not required in all 
circumstances for part 91 operations.
    In addition, the FAA notes that changing Sec.  91.107(a)(3) may 
have far-reaching consequences that would best be addressed through a 
rulemaking. For example, in its comment, the NTSB acknowledged that 
some older airplanes currently have bench-style seating that can 
accommodate multiple passengers with one restraint system. The FAA 
notes that airplanes with these bench-style seats make up a significant 
portion of the part 91 community. In addition, aircraft with these 
types of seating have a significant diversity in their specific seating 
restraint arrangements--some aircraft with bench seats have a seat belt 
equipped for each individual passenger while other aircraft with bench 
seats have a single shared seat belt for use by everyone in the bench 
seat. Because a significant portion of the part 91 community currently 
uses some manner of a shared seat/seat belt, the FAA would need to 
consider, as part of a rulemaking, the effects that changing Sec.  
91.107(a)(3) would have on those members of the part 91 community.
    Nevertheless, even though Sec.  91.107(a)(3), as previously 
interpreted by the agency, may allow for shared use of a single 
restraint in certain situations, the FAA agrees with NTSB that having 
each passenger use a separate seat and a separate seat belt can be 
significantly safer than having passengers share a seat and/or seat 
belt. Accordingly, the FAA strongly encourages PICs in part 91 
operations to ensure, whenever possible, that each passenger is seated 
in a separate seat and restrained by a separate restraint system. With 
regard to children, the FAA also strongly encourages children to be 
restrained in a separate seat by an appropriate child restraint system 
during takeoff, landing, and turbulence.
    In its comments, the NTSB also expressed a concern that this 
clarification could be interpreted to permit multiple occupants to 
share a single shoulder harness. In response to NTSB's concern, the FAA 
emphasizes that the proposed clarification was drafted to address the 
shared use of seats and/or seat belts--not shoulder harnesses. Because 
the proposed clarification did not address shoulder harnesses, this 
clarification is limited solely to the shared use of seats and/or seat 
belts in part 91 operations.
    In their comments, the NTSB and an individual commenter also 
asserted that the structural strength requirements for a seat and the 
approval and rating for a seat belt are not always available to a 
general aviation pilot because this information is typically not 
included in the AFM. The individual commenter added that many older 
aircraft do not have an AFM, but instead have an owner's manual that 
contains even less information.
    In response to these comments, the FAA notes that, even though the 
pertinent information is sometimes not contained in the AFM, 
information about seat usage limitations and seat belt approval and 
rating can, in many cases, be obtained from the equipment manufacturer. 
However, the FAA agrees with the commenters that this information 
cannot always be obtained from the equipment manufacturer. Accordingly, 
before multiple occupants are permitted to use the same seat and/or 
seat belt, if the pertinent information is available, the PIC should 
check whether: (1) The seat belt is approved and rated for such use; 
and (2) the structural strength requirements for the seat are not 
exceeded.
    In addition, before seating multiple occupants in the same seat 
and/or seat belt, PICs should always check to ensure that the seat 
usage conforms to the limitations contained in the approved portion of 
the AFM or the owner's manual. Owner's manuals for older aircraft 
typically show the permissible seating arrangements that are to be used 
for the aircraft, and the number of people using a seat and/or seat 
belt should not exceed the number of people shown in the owner's manual 
seating arrangement.

    Issued in Washington, DC, on May 18, 2012.
Rebecca B. MacPherson,
Assistant Chief Counsel for Regulations, AGC-200.
[FR Doc. 2012-12554 Filed 5-23-12; 8:45 a.m.]
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