An Insistence on Safety in Filling Exit-Row Seats

New York Times March 15, 2010
Joe Sharkey

LIKE most business travelers, Richard M. Owens has occasionally sat in an exit-row seat on an airplane and wondered what he would do in a real emergency. He got to find out, he told me, on a harrowing approach into Miami about five years ago.

A flight attendant sidled up to him, he recalled, and asked him to follow her back to the rear galley. “She told me that, as far as they could tell, they weren’t able to get the landing gear down.”

He returned to his seat with instructions on the anticipated emergency landing. At 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, he said, “My job was to block people from going at that exit till the door was open and lying on the seat.”

The plane made a pass over the airport, where a runway was lined with emergency vehicles. But the landing gear finally deployed and the plane came down without further incident.

Mr. Owens said he still tried to book an exit-row seat because it came with extra legroom. “Invariably,” he said, “the flight attendant will come by and say, ‘Do you realize what it means to sit in this row?’ And sometimes I see people in the exit rows just nod their heads, yeah, yeah, even when it seems they really have no idea.”

Last week, I wrote about the plan by Continental Airlines to sell exit-row seats to anyone paying extra for the additional seven inches or more of legroom. Most airlines now sell so-called priority seating — the perceived better seats on a plane, including aisle seats toward the front of coach and those in emergency exit rows — as the industry tries to generate revenue.

I thought most readers would react with annoyance to hearing about still another airline fee. But instead, most expressed strong feelings about safety.

“I urge airlines never to sell exit-row seats,” Mr. Owens said. Like others who wrote, he said selling exit-row seats could loosen already lax procedures for assigning those seats, and add another unwanted chore for flight attendants who, he said, “have enough work to do” ensuring safety.

The importance of emergency exits was underlined in January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River off Manhattan and all 155 on board escaped without serious injury thanks to brilliant emergency evacuation work by the flight crew, the passengers and the quick work by rescuers in boats. Since then, flight crews have become more firm in reminding people in exit rows of their special responsibilities.

“The bottom line is that it’s up to the airline to make sure that whoever they sit in that exit row can perform the duties that are prescribed in the regulations,” said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. If an airline has any doubt about a passenger’s fitness, “they shouldn’t let the person sit there, regardless of whether or not they want to pay for it,” he said.

The F.A.A. rules on exit-row seats are detailed. Airlines are required to make sure that anyone in an exit row has “sufficient mobility, strength or dexterity in both arms and hands, and both legs” to get the exit hatch open and stowed when instructed. This requires the ability “to lift out, hold, deposit on nearby seats, or maneuver over the seatbacks to the next row, objects the size and weight of over-wing exit doors,” as well as “to assist others” and to understand verbal instructions in English.

An exit-row hatch typically weighs 35 to 45 pounds, by the way. Hoisting one in a cabin that may be filled with smoke and flames, perhaps amid screaming, shoving passengers, is not a trivial assignment. And flight attendants are left in a tricky spot, trying to determine with a quick look whether a passenger has the required physical abilities.

“Very often these rows are occupied by people who look like they would be in difficulty if they had to do something physically difficult,” Mr. Owens told me. “And some of them will say anything to be able to stay in those seats.”

Readers who replied to last week’s column asked if exit rows could be allocated to the physically fit without alienating the not-fit? Should the cut be made exclusively at the check-in gate, rather than on board? Why don’t airlines or airports set up demonstrations in terminals where passengers can hoist that exit-row hatch?

There are no easy answers. But one reaction came through clearly. As Werner R. Kraneburg wrote, “An exit row shouldn’t just be extra revenue for the airline.”

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1 comment for “An Insistence on Safety in Filling Exit-Row Seats

  1. Martha
    March 16, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Related Story
    Paying to Pick Seats Loathsome, Many Passengers Say

    Paying for extras has become routine for airline passengers but it doesn’t mean they like it, with a poll showing more than half all travellers hate having to fork out to choose their seat.

    The online poll of nearly 2,000 people by website, asked respondents which airline fees they despised the most.

    Paying for the privilege of picking their seat was the biggest bugbear for 52 percent of respondents, followed by paying to change flights – something which irked a third of passengers.

    A minority, or 14 percent, said they didn’t like paying extra for snacks while just 3 percent said they were happy to pay for any extra services.

    George Hobica, president of, said airlines were annoying passengers by adding to what many people consider the already high cost of air travel.

    “There are certain airline services that really do involve added expense,” he said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

    “These include meals (for obvious reasons), transporting and checking bags (fuel and labor), and even to a certain degree changing your date of travel.”

    “But assigning a seat, which can be done online for virtually no transaction cost to the airline? It’s simply a way to generate revenue and not to cover a tangible expense. I think passengers realize this and that’s why they’re so annoyed by it.”

    Hard hit by the financial crisis, many airlines across the globe, and especially in the United States, have started charging passengers for services that used to be free: check-in baggage, drinks and snacks, for example.

    While this is the norm – and in a way expected – on budget airlines, travellers have expressed dismay at the fees levied by big carriers as they try and offset losses caused by the drop in travel caused by the global economic downturn.

    According to Rick Seaney, chief executive of online ticketing website, there are than a dozen different fees that airlines add onto the basic ticket price, including fees for ticket rescheduling, oversize bags and meals.

    One of the more controversial charges, put in place by Southwest Airlines and United Airlines in the United States following passenger complaints, involves asking overweight passengers to buy a second seat, which can be refunded if the plane is not full.

    Several major U.S. carriers, including American Airlines and Continental Airlines, have said they would continue to explore new fees and cost-cutting measures to enhance profitability while demand for air travel among business customers picks up.

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