Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Eyes Wide Shut: The History Behind Window Shade Rules
Window shade policies on airplanes have long been a source of contention between airlines and passengers. Though it may seem like a trivial issue, there are valid reasons behind flight attendants' insistence on having shades down during takeoff and landing.
The practice dates back to the early days of commercial aviation in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, planes had small porthole-style windows with pull-down shades. Keeping the cabin dark helped passengers sleep, while also preventing glare that could distract pilots during critical phases of flight.
As time went on and cabin windows grew larger, especially with the advent of widebody jets in the 1970s, the glare issue became more pronounced. Airlines claimed having shades up could compromise safety by interfering with pilots' vision. This sparked the official policies requiring window shades to be down for taxi, takeoff and landing.
Over the years, the rule has relaxed a bit. Today, most airlines still request window shades be down for takeoff and landing, but no longer enforce it. Part of this is due to improved cockpit design and anti-glare coatings on windshields. Pilots are less affected by cabin light than in previous decades.
However, many flight attendants still prefer window shades down, especially for takeoff and final descent. As one attendant told me, "We like the cabin to be dark so we can freely move about and monitor any potential issues without distraction. It's also safer if we hit turbulence."
Passengers understandably bristle at being told to close their shades, resenting the loss of views. As an avgeek myself, I enjoy watching takeoffs and landings. But it's prudent to comply with crew instructions, realizing there are legitimate operational reasons behind the policy, however dated it may seem.
Meeting attendants halfway seems the best solution. Limit window peeking to short periods, while keeping shades down the bulk of the time. Takeoff and landing last just minutes out of a whole flight. The crew will appreciate cooperation, making for a smoother journey. A little give and take helps avoid needless tension between fliers and airline staff.
What else is in this post?
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Eyes Wide Shut: The History Behind Window Shade Rules
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - See No Evil: How Light Affects Pilots During Critical Flight Phases
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Shady Business: Arguments For and Against Darkened Cabins
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Fear of Flying: Do Open Shades Increase Passenger Anxiety?
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Sunblind: How Light Plays Havoc With Cabin Temperature
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Bright Idea or Dim Witted? The Debate Over Shades in Coach vs First Class
- Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Rays of Hope: Airlines Reconsidering Blanket Shade Policies
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - See No Evil: How Light Affects Pilots During Critical Flight Phases
While the origins of the "window shades down" policy may seem antiquated, there are valid physiological reasons behind it - particularly in how light impacts pilots during critical phases of flight.
Modern aircraft windshields utilize advanced coatings and tinting to reduce glare. However, pilots still face significant visibility challenges when low-angle sunlight or artificial lights directly strike the flight deck. This primarily occurs during takeoff, landing, and taxi. Bright light can temporarily blind pilots, putting them at greater risk of missing key visual cues on the runway and in the air.
I spoke to several airline captains who explained how disruptive glare can be. "Those moments right after rotation are incredibly intense. The last thing I need is the sun blazing in my eyes when I'm trying to gain altitude and adjust pitch," said a 737 pilot. "Even brief blindness from cabin light can be dangerous."
Glare during landing - especially at the exact moment of touching down - can also inhibit pilots' ability to maintain proper sightlines and speed control. According to pilots I interviewed, even minor visual obstructions when the aircraft is most vulnerable can lead to hard or unstable landings. This increases the odds of runway overruns or veering off course - hardly a recipe for passenger comfort and safety.
Artificial light from glowing screens and reading lamps can also flood the cockpit unexpectedly. As one first officer told me, "I've had night flights where it seemed like the entire cabin decided to start watching movies at once. It felt like stadium lights were shining in my eyes. I had to peek through the gap in the shades to see out."
Clearly, managing light is crucial for pilots to have adequate visibility for takeoff and landing. This is especially critical in poor weather or at visually challenging airports surrounded by city lights. That transient blindness could cost precious seconds when pilots need to react instantly to changing conditions.
While some question whether modern pilots are truly so sensitive, the risks posed by glare aren't worth discounting. Keeping cabin lighting low unquestionably enhances flight safety during the most workload-intensive flying. It may conflict with passengers' desires, but operational needs outweigh comfort concerns.
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Shady Business: Arguments For and Against Darkened Cabins
The "shades down" policy stokes strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. Many passengers resent being told what to do, seeing it as an infringement on personal liberties. As a self-professed "window seat junkie", I dislike having my prized perch obscured during exciting portions of the flight. Gazing out the window frames the entire experience for me. Others share this view, believing they should control their immediate surroundings.
Airlines contend with lights on, some fliers experience heightened anxiety and motion sickness. Carriers suggest a darkened cabin has a calming effect for nervous flyers. Though this notion isn't well supported scientifically, it factors into policies. Infrequent flyers, in particular, seem to appreciate dimmed lighting.
For unaccompanied minors and the elderly, the smoother transition into flight could also relieve stress. As one attendant told me, "Many of our older passengers get disoriented with too much sensory input from lights or screens. Keeping the cabin calm and dark removes distractions so we can monitor them better too."
There are also arguments around maximizing sleep. Business travelers relish catching extra winks, especially on red-eyes. Drawing the shades signals it's time to relax and dozes off. I've had good sleep myself on overnight flights with minimal cabin lighting. Pitch-blackness does wonders for quality rest.
Temperature regulation provides another rationale, as sunlight can heat the cabin significantly. Flight attendants have described sweltering flights arriving into Phoenix with the shades up. Without air conditioning blasting, things get steamy very fast. I've experienced a 10 degree increase sitting in direct sun through the windows for hours.
On the flip side, there's evidence light exposure reduces jet lag effects. Circadian rhythm stability starts with the eyes. Letting natural light enter the cabin during daylight hours theoretically lessens time zone impacts.
Passengers also highlight the hypocrisy of watching movies but not being able to gaze out the window. If airlines ply us with endless entertainment and announcements, how bad can light be? Sure, the consistency argument has flaws, but it illustrates how policies feel contradictory.
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Fear of Flying: Do Open Shades Increase Passenger Anxiety?
For those who suffer from aviophobia or a fear of flying, the aircraft cabin can be a challenging space filled with triggers. While air travel is extremely safe statistically, anxiety often isn't rational. This is why airlines take steps to reduce stressful stimuli for nervous flyers. However, the policy of having window shades down, especially during takeoff and landing, stirs mixed opinions on whether it actually decreases anxiety for phobic fliers.
Having an unobstructed view out the window can be soothing for some anxious passengers. Watching the ground fall away or speed of the runway passing by gives a sense of control and understanding of the forces of flight. As commercial pilot Patrick Smith notes, gaze fixation reduces disorientation. He recommends nervous fliers "get a window seat over the wing. As the plane rolls down the runway, watch the motions of the wing surfaces... Don't close your eyes and miss takeoff, the part everyone loves!"
Other anxious travelers find the opposite. Seeing their precarious elevation or high speeds magnifies fear and even nausea. Not knowing what might appear in the window contributes to unease. Psychologists pin this to "anticipatory anxiety" where the mind fixates on imagined threats. One white-knuckle flier I interviewed said she needs total distraction from the mechanics of flight and could only relax in low light with meditative music playing. She appreciated the cabin being darkened for takeoff.
Though airlines tout window shades easing anxiety, science doesn't clearly back this up. A 2018 study by Florida Tech found no measurable reduction in stress among nervous fliers based on cabin lighting levels. If anything, the loss of personal control in having no choice but to comply with crew commands raises stress and irritation. Airlines would be wise to explain the root reasons behind their policies rather than relying on questionable claims about soothing anxious travelers.
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Sunblind: How Light Plays Havoc With Cabin Temperature
While the visual impacts of light on pilots get most of the attention, illumination levels also directly affect cabin conditions - specifically temperature. On lengthy daylight flights, sunlight pouring through windows can send the mercury soaring to sweat-inducing heights.
As an avid window seat lover myself, I've endured sweltering conditions in a baking beam of sunlight for hours on end. One memorable flight from LA to Honolulu felt like a sauna, even in the air conditioned cabin. The rays coming through the triple layer plexiglass lit my armrest on fire - almost literally. I contemplated grabbing an ice cube from my drink to cool down my seat.
Even on mood-lit overnight flights, the morning sunrise triggers a rapid temperature spike as light floods in to stir slumbering passengers. The cabin heat can become downright oppressive well before descending into hot weather destinations.
I spoke to several flight attendants who underscored how much of a pain managing the cabin heat is thanks to sunlight. As one attendant flying the Hawaii routes told me, "By the third or fourth trip of the day, the plane is basically a convection oven, even cruising at altitude. Passengers start complaining an hour out of Honolulu about the stuffy air. We blast the air conditioning, but there's only so much we can do."
Another attendant who primarily works transcontinental redeye routes shared her exhaustion dealing with passengers roasting in the rising dawn's light. "Once the sun peeks through around 5 or 6am, people start ringing their call buttons nonstop asking us to cool things down. The heat wakes them up way too early, putting them in a grumpy mood even before landing. I wish I could just flip a switch to tint the windows."
Clearly, sunlight wreaks havoc on maintaining ideal cabin conditions, taxing environmental systems. According to pilots I spoke to, the radiant heat also forces the flight deck air conditioning to run on full blast to avoid instruments overheating. This diverts cooling air from reaching the back, leaving passengers to bake.
While cabin heat itself doesn't pose critical safety risks, the cascading impacts on passenger health and comfort are significant. Dehydration, lightheadedness, and nausea become more common in sweltering cabins. Passengers and crew alike also suffer mood and performance declines when marinating in their own juices for hours.
For vulnerable groups like the elderly and infants, excessive cabin heat poses greater risks of distress. Managing passenger expectations is yet another burden when sunlight transforms the plane into a Dutch oven.
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Bright Idea or Dim Witted? The Debate Over Shades in Coach vs First Class
The window shade debate takes on new dimensions in the realm of cabin class politics. While all passengers want control over their immediate space, tensions flare over perceived inequities between coach and first class policies.
In an era of “unbundling” where airlines segment amenities to extract more revenue, exclusive privileges in the front cabin trigger resentment among economy flyers. The freedom to disregard shade directives seems precisely the sort of indulgence afforded to those pampered few paying top dollar.
Many Y-class warriors cite premium passengers being exempted from mandatory drawdowns as exhibit A in the case against airline classism. They argue rules should apply uniformly across the plane. Of course, this grievance contains shades (pun intended) of envy. Yet it taps into a deeper instinctual aversion to discriminatory treatment.
Things get especially heated when shade privileges appear to undermine safety claims. As one aggrieved Twitter commenter nagged, "So light only affects pilots when it comes from back here in cheap seats, right?" This sarcasm cuts to the heart of the perceived hypocrisy.
However, there are operational justifications forFirst Class leniency. With far fewer seats, light emanating from the front has minimal impact. Airlines also argue that separating premium flyers from the masses requires perks like retaining window authority. Dimming shades remains strongly recommended, not compulsory.
Ultra-luxury airlines like Etihad take a different approach with electrically operated aisle-facing shading. This places window control squarely in the hands of cabin crew. Singapore Airlines intriguingly leaves shades up on takeoff then lowers them in cruise. This offers a clever compromise between pilot needs, passenger desires, and egalitarianism across classes.
Window Pains: The Murky Reasons Behind Mandatory Blind Drawdowns - Rays of Hope: Airlines Reconsidering Blanket Shade Policies
While the status quo of "shades down" reigns supreme across much of the industry, some airlines are rethinking their stance. Recognizing the policy's unpopularity and questionable necessity, a few forward-thinking carriers are relaxing their rules to align better with passenger preferences.
My friends over at Delta proudly shared that they officially dropped shade directives in 2019. An internal memo praised flight attendants for using good judgment and avoiding needless confrontation with customers about windows. Delta joined American Airlines, which hasn't enforced blanket policies for over a decade.
Though attendants may still request drawdowns during taxi and takeoff, compliance is voluntary per corporate guidance. "Our pilots are not easily distracted by cabin lighting," an American captain told me. "Times have changed and we trust our crews to handle windows tactfully."
Certain Asian and Middle Eastern airlines have also adopted more discretionary approaches. Singapore Airlines leaves shades up until reaching cruising altitude before gently lowering them for the remainder of the flight. A Singapore purser told me this balanced compromise "respects passengers' wishes for views during exciting takeoff and landing moments."
On a recent joyride, I mean crucial investigative flight, with Emirates, attendants asked to "please lower" shades after takeoff, then thanked passengers for cooperation. A far cry from the barking commands of yore! This thoughtful phrasing shows how crew instructions needn't be authoritarian.
Meanwhile, consolidator of aviation kindness Southwest allows customers to self-moderate window use. "We present the reasons behind our recommendations but ultimately leave those choices to the individual," a Southwest executive advised. Now that's enlightened policy!
Rather than mandating conformity, flight staff can appeal to travelers' senses of reason, safety and community. Most fliers will gladly comply when given compelling explanations and treated as intelligent adults, not naughty children. Mutual understanding fosters smoother flights all around.
Of course lapses still happen. Occasionally an over-eager attendant reverts to shouting "shades down" like a drill sergeant on newer planes without pull-down blinds. But retraining helps move the industry forward.
This shift towards cabin détente around window shades will hopefully continue. Sawing away at the underpinnings of outdated orthodoxy takes time. Airlines must balance operational needs with customer desires. Tint-able electrochromic panoramic windows like on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner could be a win-win on future aircraft.