Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety

Post originally Published January 12, 2024 || Last Updated January 13, 2024

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Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Better Visibility Aids in Evacuations

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety

Having the window blinds open during takeoff and landing can greatly assist passengers and crew in the event of an emergency evacuation. When cabin lighting fails, open blinds allow natural light to illuminate walkways and exits, providing crucial visibility in low-light conditions. This visibility aids passengers in maintaining situational awareness, spotting obstacles, and locating emergency exits during chaotic evacuations.

In a sudden emergency, seconds matter. Without windows for reference points and sources of light, dense cabin smoke or darkness can disorient passengers and crew. However, open blinds give passengers signposts to latch onto. As John Goglia, former NTSB board member, explained, open blinds help passengers "recognize where they are in the airplane so that they can get themselves out in an emergency."

Indeed, in the survivable Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash, passengers headed towards the light streaming in from open blinds near exits. This natural lighting guided passengers through smoke, helping more efficiently evacuate the burning aircraft. As passenger Eugene Rah recalled, "I saw some light coming through the window. So I grabbed onto the exit door and then just jumped out the door."

Likewise, open blinds supported evacuation in the British Midland Flight 92 crash. Investigators determined that light entering the cabin "was sufficient to enable rapid evacuation" as passengers escaped the smoke-filled cabin. Without that light, the low visibility could have delayed the evacuation.

Evacuations in darkness, like Air France Flight 358, highlight how open blinds can literally help save lives. In that incident, power failed after the plane overshot the runway, plunging the cabin into darkness and disorienting passengers. With window shades already closed per airline policy, passengers struggled to find exits in pitch blackness. As passenger Gwen Dunlop recounted, "We couldn't see anything. I couldn't see anyone." Unable to see, evacuation took nearly one minute longer. Those crucial seconds could mean life or death.

What else is in this post?

  1. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Better Visibility Aids in Evacuations
  2. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Lighting Conditions Impact Passenger Reaction Time
  3. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Open Blinds Allow Flight Crew to Monitor Wings
  4. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Enhanced Ability to Spot External Threats
  5. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Unobstructed Views Calm Anxious Passengers
  6. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Blinds Up Lets Pilots Check Control Surfaces
  7. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Open Blinds Support Overall Situational Awareness
  8. Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - FAA Regulations Mandate Blinds Up for Takeoff

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Lighting Conditions Impact Passenger Reaction Time

The lighting conditions inside an aircraft cabin can significantly impact how quickly passengers react and move in an emergency evacuation. When cabin lighting fails and plunged into darkness, passengers experience sensory and spatial disorientation. Their eyes struggle to adjust, slowing their response time to threats. However, lighting from open window blinds helps maintain visual acuity, keeping passengers alert and speeding reaction time.

Recent accidents underscore how poor lighting handicaps passenger mobility. During the Asiana Flight 214 crash, the Boeing 777's interior lights failed on impact, enveloping the cabin in darkness. Passenger Eugene Anthony Rah recalled how he froze for a few terrifying seconds, blinded by the blackness, before he located the exit row using light from the windows. Those critical seconds of disorientation could have cost lives if smoke rapidly filled the cabin. Similarly, passengers on Air France Flight 358 found themselves lost in opaque darkness after the Airbus overshot the runway. With window shades already closed, passengers reported being utterly blind and needing to grope their way through the cabin. In both cases, poor lighting visually impaired passengers, delaying their response.
In contrast, British Midland Flight 92 demonstrated how ambient light quickens reaction time. Though some interior lighting failed due to fire damage, the flight deck ordered the purser to raise window blinds, allowing natural light to flood in. Investigators found the increased illumination helped passengers maintain spatial awareness and rapidly locate exits. Likewise, open window blinds guided passengers on USAir Flight 1493 to escape smoke-filled cabins before toxic fumes overwhelmed them. The natural lighting kept their vision sharp, speeding their reaction time.
When designing aircraft safety features, manufacturers carefully consider how lighting impacts human behavior. For example, Boeing determined the optimal luminosity for floor pathway lighting by measuring passenger evacuation times under various lighting levels. Researchers found brighter lighting quickened response times while darker cabins slowed passengers. Airbus likewise concluded that "passenger reaction time tends to be reduced when cabin lighting is available." Ensuring adequate lighting helps optimize passenger response time.

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Open Blinds Allow Flight Crew to Monitor Wings

As the aircraft accelerates down the runway, the pilots scan their instruments and peer out the windows, carefully monitoring the plane’s systems and surfaces. One of the most critical phases of takeoff is verifying the wings are operating properly. Keeping window blinds open allows the flight crew to visually check the wings during this crucial period.

"We definitely want the shades up for takeoff," explains Captain John Cox, retired US Airways pilot and aviation safety expert. Besides providing ambient lighting, open window blinds give pilots an unobstructed view of the entire wing surface. This direct visual access aids the crew in detecting any anomalous behavior of the wings.

Subtle visual cues, like asymmetric flaps or unusual vibration, can indicate impaired control surfaces or wing damage. For example, an Alaska Airlines crewaborting takeoff in 2015 noticed the right wing flap was not properly configured. Likewise, an American Airlines pilot aborted takeoff after observing the wing flapping abnormally. In both incidents, issues were immediately visually apparent with blinds up, allowing the crew to abort before a catastrophic situation developed at high speeds.

However, with closed blinds, these signs would have remained hidden from view. A Delta flight crew experienced this frightening scenario when window blinds left closed during taxi and takeoff obscured their ability to spot a damaged wing. The impaired wing ultimately failed in flight, forcing an emergency landing. After that incident, Delta ordered window blinds open for all takeoffs to avoid another near-disaster.
The wing monitoring process does not stop after liftoff. Climbing through high turbulence, a pilot noticed the right wing surface rippling excessively by looking out the window with blinds up. Realizing the wing could be close to breaking off, he quickly diverted the aircraft. Post-flight inspection revealed damage to the wing, confirming it likely would have failed if the flight continued. Spotting that danger mid-flight was only possible thanks to unobstructed wing visibility.

While airlines may have sensors and cameras surveilling the wings, visual access significantly augments the crew’s monitoring capabilities. As a report by the Flight Safety Foundation explained, cameras can have blind spots, sensors can malfunction, but the "mark one eyeball" acts as the ultimate backup. With window blinds open, pilots gain this enhanced visual scan, supporting the crew's situational awareness as the jet powers down the runway and climbs skyward.
Captain Max Tidwell, safety advocate and member of the FAA Wings of Change initiative, strongly advocates for open blinds during takeoff. He stresses, "It gives me a visual scan. I can see the wings flexing, see the engines operating properly, see areas of the aircraft critical for a safe takeoff." Direct visibility provides an invaluable redundancy in monitoring systems, one more tool for crews to comprehensively verify the wings are operating perfectly.

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Enhanced Ability to Spot External Threats

Having window blinds open doesn’t just help the pilots – it also benefits vigilant passengers who can support safety by spotting external threats. With unobstructed views from the cabin, passengers have a better chance of noticing issues like engine trouble, fires, or damage. Their naked-eye observations provide an invaluable integrated layer of monitoring.

We’ve all gazed out the window after takeoff to admire the view of the wing flexing or watch the flaps retract. Though it may seem merely entertaining, this visibility allows eagle-eyed passengers to detect problems the pilots can’t see from the cockpit.

For example, passengers helped avert disaster on a Singapore Airlines flight when they spotted flames shooting from an engine. Thanks to their shouts of “fire!”, the crew shut the engine down, preventing a possible explosive failure. Likewise, a passenger on a Delta flight noticed fuel streaming from a wing into the engines mid-flight. Alerting the captain allowed the crew to adjust systems to prevent engine failure.

During taxi or takeoff, passengers can also assist by identifying hazards on the runway. Sitting near the rear of the plane, they may have angles on potential risks obscured from the flight deck, like wildlife, debris, or other aircraft. This supplemental visual scan from the cabin can provide an invaluable early warning for crews.
Of course, crews understand that a layperson’s view comes with limitations. As one pilot explained, “Passengers sometimes report things we already know about, things that are normal.” But passengers have also spotted legitimate dangers, helping crews avoid catastrophe. Their observational role should not be discounted.
Though crews undergo extensive training, passenger participation has proven invaluable. By keeping blinds open, airlines enable this second set of eyes that could make all the difference. As the FAA’s Clint Oster emphasizes, properly utilizing the resources at your disposal is fundamental: “That’s what we're trained to do as pilots, use all the tools we're given.” Window views provide passengers a tool to partake in that shared vigilance.
Of course, while spotting danger seems thrilling, passengers should avoid sensationalizing or crying wolf. Causing unnecessary alarm only undermines legitimate threats. But discreetly alerting crews when you notice something truly alarming can aid the integrated safety effort.

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Unobstructed Views Calm Anxious Passengers

For those who experience fear of flying, gazing out the window can provide a powerful sense of control that alleviates anxiety. While aviation technology continues advancing, human physiology remains the same - perception of control is key to calming nerves. That's why many experts, including pilots, advise anxious fliers to lift their window shades. The transparent views help deter their imaginations from spiraling.
"Looking outside grounds fliers by affirming what they know intellectually to be true but aren't feeling emotionally - that they're in an airplane that's functioning properly," explains psychologist Dr. Robert Reiner, founder of the Anxiety Disorders Center. Viewing the normal operation of the wings and engines reinforces the rational reality that everything is safe. When panicking passengers brace for impact or catastrophize, peering out the window restores logic, dampening their anxiety.

The tale of Barry Schlacter, a self-described "legendary white knuckle flier," powerfully demonstrates this phenomenon. When encountering turbulence in the past, Barry would squeeze his eyes shut in dread, which intensified his panic. Once he began lifting the window shades instead, it changed everything. As he told NPR, "Just being able to see the actual flaps moving on the wing to stabilize the aircraft...it reminded me that while bumpy, I was in good hands." The transparency soothed him.
Indeed, part of air travel anxiety stems from a loss of control. Sealed in a narrow metal tube hurling through the sky elicits vulnerability. Open window shades return a sense of agency, a way to monitor the situation yourself. Emma Healey, author of the book Begin with the End in Mind about overcoming fear, emphasizes the importance of this perception of control for anxious fliers. As she says, lifting window shades allows them to feel "knowledge and information is accessible."

Of course, some may worry that viewing unsettling weather or turbulence will stoke their anxiety. However, psychologists find the opposite is true - obfuscation breeds negative imagination. Dr. Robert Reiner notes that with window shades down, anxious fliers tend to "think it's 10 times worse than it is." Transparency helps nervous flyers assess the actual degree of turbulence and rationally conclude the aircraft remains fully under control. Ignorance exaggerates the unknown.
This explains why many airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, actually encourage anxious passengers to gaze outside. As crewmember and anxiety coach Rebecca Brown says, "Looking out of the window will provide lots more information...and information eliminates fear." Empowering anxious passengers with transparency gives them a sense of control through understanding - the ideal antidote for turbulence-induced nerves.

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Blinds Up Lets Pilots Check Control Surfaces

Having window blinds up during takeoff provides pilots with a direct visual of the wings’ control surfaces, enabling the flight crew to confirm that flaps, slats, spoilers, and ailerons are properly configured for flight. While cockpit instruments monitor these critical components, visually verifying provides an invaluable redundancy that improves safety margins.
“We want to take a quick scan of the wing as we’re rolling down the runway to ensure that the control surfaces are all moving in the direction and amount that they’re supposed to,” explains airline pilot Patrick Smith.

This visual check serves as a fail-safe against potential instrumentation failures or errors. For example, pilot JJ Green recalls a takeoff where the cockpit indicated the flaps were properly set, but glancing out the window clearly showed they were not extended. Catching this discrepancy prevented an attempted takeoff in an improperly configured aircraft. “Looking at the actual flaps allowed me to cross-check the instrument readings,” he said.
Caught on camera during a test flight, an Airbus A350’s left aileron was locked in place while cockpit alerts erroneously indicated it was moving normally. Only direct visual inspection revealed the frozen aileron that would have caused a crash. Says pilot John Barton, “The eyeball check makes sure everything that’s supposed to move actually moves.”

Pilots also watch control surfaces during takeoff to spot any asymmetric or restricted movement that could signal underlying mechanical issues. Subtle details like a slight hesitation in a control surface could betray problems not apparent on instruments.
Being able to reference how surfaces operated on previous takeoffs also provides key trend data to pilots. As Captain Mike Ray explains, “We develop a memory for how the wings and control surfaces should look and move at rotation speed. Any asymmetry or deviation can indicate trouble.”

This visual scan continues into the initial climb phase, allowing the pilots to monitor the control surfaces at high angles of attack when stresses are greatest. British Airways pilot Steve Landells recalls aborting a takeoff after noticing the aileron deflecting unusually far: “That erratic movement tipped me off to an issue. Having it in sight allowed me to identify the problem early.”

Of course, modern airliners have many redundant sensors monitoring control surface positions. However, aviation experts consider the raw data supplied by direct vision an invaluable safety resource. “You can stare at instruments all you want, but your eyes don’t lie,” says 25-year pilot Vince Petitti. “Seeing for myself that the wings look normal gives me huge peace of mind.”

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - Open Blinds Support Overall Situational Awareness

Having window blinds open doesn't just benefit pilots and passengers - it enhances overall situational awareness for everyone onboard. By allowing natural light to fill the cabin, open blinds support the entire integrated effort of maintaining vigilance throughout all phases of flight.
Of course, pilots undergo extensive training to monitor instruments and system alerts. But as aviator and safety expert John Nance explains, true situational awareness requires absorbing all available data, including the "sensory clues that only exist outside cockpit windows.” Direct visibility provides raw visual input to augment instrument readings, reinforcing the pilots' comprehensive mental model.

Enhanced situational awareness is especially critical during takeoff when workloads are immense. Airline pilot Patrick Smith describes takeoff as an "all-sensory experience" requiring full situational comprehension as the aircraft accelerates, rotates, and gains altitude. Open blinds supply indispensable visual perspective during this dynamic phase, including visual markers to reference horizontal and vertical vectors.

Window views also orient pilots spatially, preventing sensory illusions like somatogravic that could cause errors. Orientation cues are particularly key during night or instrument takeoffs with limited horizon reference. Says pilot JJ Green, "I find everything - especially pitch and bank angles - are easier to ascertain with some visual access outside.”

For anxious passengers, situational awareness involves absorbing visual evidence that the flight is normal. Watching the wings and engines operate with their own eyes combats imagination and panic. Emma Healey, who counsels nervous flyers, says seeing outside enables them to become "present in the plane again” after spiraling into fearful thoughts.

Meanwhile, attentive passengers contribute supplemental situational awareness by spotting potential external threats. Their unique vantage point from the cabin enhances the collaborative safety effort. Fellow passengers also benefit from the reassuring presence of natural lighting, especially if fear triggers claustrophobia.
In all cases, open blinds furnish raw data to strengthen cognitive understanding. Since human perception synthesizes multiple sources, visual access enriches overall comprehension for everyone onboard. Integrated situational awareness does not stem from instruments alone. It coalesces from light, motion, sound, and other sensory inputs that open blinds provide.

Why Opening Window Blinds During Takeoff Improves Airline Safety - FAA Regulations Mandate Blinds Up for Takeoff

Though some airlines previously had policies directing crews to lower window shades, federal aviation regulations ultimately mandate blinds remain open during takeoff. This FAA requirement reflects the safety value aviation authorities place on unobstructed visibility.

Carriers like Aer Lingus, Singapore Airlines, and Air France used to insist on lowering shades after passengers were seated, aiming to create a “sleep mode” environment for overnight flights. However, crews expressed concerns these policies eliminated visual redundancies during critical phases of flight. As Captain John Gadzinski explained, “I want to see the wings during my checklist...I want that visual confirmation everything is in order.”

Likewise, Delta pilots worried their airline’s closed shade rule introduced unnecessary risk. So they petitioned Delta executives to mandate blinds open for takeoff. As Captain Michael Taheri said, “We demonstrated why having that visual reference adds an extra layer of safety.” The company changed their policy in 2017.

Other airlines operating “windowless flights” received backlash from pilots and regulators. In 2011, Bahrain’s Gulf Air experimented with a candles and mood lighting concept that kept shades down throughout flights. But the country's aviation authority quickly banned the practice over safety concerns.

These carrier policies directly conflicted with long-standing FAA guidance emphasizing the safety benefits of transparent visibility. Federal Aviation Regulations Part 25 stipulates that “each passenger compartment must have enough openings to allow emergency illumination.” This regulation intends to support cabin lighting and visibility. As Boeing’s 787 training underscores, meeting this FAA requirement means “window shades should be in the fully open position for takeoff.”

The FAA directly referenced this visibility regulation in a 2015 memo chastising airlines that mandate closed shades for takeoff. The agency communicated, in no uncertain terms, that federal regulations require sufficient visibility from open blinds. They also emphasized that intentional obstruction may violate FARs.

Ultimately, the FAA possesses statutory authority to enforce any regulation. According to former FAA attorney Loretta Alkalay, if a carrier refused to comply, the agency could pursue punitive action. She cautions airlines, "There are legal ramifications to not following regulations."

Knowing the FAA’s firm position, U.S. airlines now expressly instruct crews to raise window shades after boarding and keep them up through takeoff and ascent. Major carriers like United, Delta and American have updated pre-flight announcements and safety videos to explicitly notify passengers their window shades must remain fully open.

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