brownLaura Brown is the acting assistant administrator for communications at the Federal Aviation Administration. After the death of Billy Mays yesterday, she was quoted as saying the TV pitchman wasn’t wearing a seatbelt on a plane that made an emergency landing. I asked her about the interview and the importance of seatbelts.

Q: Over the weekend, there was speculation that Billy Mays had died because of injuries to his head during an emergency landing. However, a preliminary autopsy suggests the cause of death was heart disease. What does the FAA know about the incident?

Brown: We are investigating the landing because there was damage to the aircraft. As far as we know, no passengers reported any injury. News reports suggest doctors have tentatively determined Billy Mays’ death was unrelated to any occurrence on the US Airways aircraft.

Q: You were quoted by TMZ as saying Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. You’ve said the quote isn’t accurate. What did you tell the reporter?

Brown: All we told the reporter was that passengers are required to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. There was no mention whatsoever of the possibility that Billy Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because there is no monitoring of seatbelt use on routine flights.

Q: Does the FAA know who is wearing a seatbelt and who isn’t?

Brown: No.

Q: What are the FAA rules about seatbelts on aircraft?

Brown: Airlines are required to turn on the “fasten seat belt” sign during any time the airplane is moving on the airport surface,  takeoff, landing, or any other time the pilot deems necessary. Each passenger is required by federal law to fasten his or her seatbelt when the “fasten seat belt” sign is illuminated. (Here’s the full rule.)

Q: Why is it important to wear a seatbelt on a plane?

Brown: An airplane seatbelt is a passengers’ best protection against any sudden or unexpected airplane movements. Turbulence  can occur unexpectedly and can even occur when the sky appears to be clear. Turbulence is a bumpy ride that can cause passengers who are not wearing their seat belts to be thrown from their seats without warning.  In nonfatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to both airline passengers and flight attendants. Each year, approximately 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.

Q: Can you think of any recent examples of a passenger being seriously injured because her or she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt?

Brown: We we can tell you that from 1980 through June 2004, U.S. air carriers had 198 turbulence accidents resulting in 266 serious injuries and three fatalities. At least two of the three fatalities involved passengers who were not wearing their seat belts while the seat belt sign was illuminated.

Q: What are the penalties for not wearing a seatbelt?

Brown: A passenger who does not wear a seatbelt is vulnerable to injury if the airplane hits  unexpected turbulence. The FAA can impose a maximum fine of $25,000 if the passenger refuse to wear a seat belt and is deemed disruptive or unruly by the flight crew.

Q: Do you have any idea, based on enforcement actions, how often people do not wear their seatbelts, as required?

Brown: While  tracking actual seatbelt use would be difficult, the FAA requires the airlines to provide a safety briefing at the beginning of flight that highlights the importance of wearing your seat belt. The agency has also done outreach via a public education campaign on the importance of wearing seat belts to prevent turbulence-related injuries.

Q: Do you have any advice for airline passengers who are concerned about safety during takeoff and landing, and possibly being struck in the head by items from an overhead bin?

Brown: Stowage compartments must meet certain certification requirements as specified in FAA regulations. Cabin bins are designed to withstand typical forces in order to prevent luggage from falling out an onto passengers.