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Having Someone in An Exit Row on a Plane is Not an FAA Requirement

Posted on : 07-04-2010 | By : Frank Eliason | In : In the News, Personal

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I am not an expert when it comes to travel, or flying a plane. I am a Customer asking questions. I had an interesting conversation with another passenger on a United flight from Philadelphia to Denver. We were discussing fees and the airline industry. She flies a few times a month between Philadelphia and Burbank, CA. I too fly multiple times a month. It was an interesting conversation. We were both sitting in aisle 17, just behind the 2 middle exit row seats on a 757.

If you sit in an exit row, there are typical questions that are asked if you want to sit there. Here are the questions, with the answers provided by individuals sitting in the 2 rows on our flight:

  1. Are you willing to assist on an evacuation?
  2. Are you under 15 years of age?
  3. Are you an adult traveling with a child under 15 years of age or another passenger who requires your care? NOTE: The passenger will not qualify, if these passenger types are seated anywhere on the aircraft.
  4. Do you lack mobility, strength and dexterity in both arms, both hands and/or both legs to: quickly reach the exit, remove any obstructions, manipulate the exit door and slide mechanisms or lift out a window exit door, exit the aircraft, or assist others in exiting?
  5. Do you lack visual capacity or require corrective aids beyond eyeglasses/contact lenses?
  6. Do you require assistance beyond a hearing aid to hear and understand verbal instructions?
  7. Are you limited in your ability to read and understand printed/graphic instructions related to exist, an aircraft evacuation or the ability to understand crew members commands?
  8. Do you have a condition that might prevent you or injure you while performing evacuation functions?

Oh wait, I was not able to provide the responses, because no one was sitting in either emergency exit row. The flight was not empty. In fact it looked fairly full to me, except these 2 aisles. There was 1 man in the exit row, but prior to take off, around the time these questions would normally be asked, 2 things happened. First they came on the loud speaker offering for someone to purchase the extra leg room within these seats. Nobody jumped at that opportunity. Then a crew member came over to the only man in the exit row and asked if he was a former United employee. He responded yes, he was retired. The crew member insisted that he move up to first class. To his credit, he was reluctant, but then he moved on. At this point now nobody was in the exit rows.

We were stunned that no one would be in the exit row. We were expecting they would ask some people to move, but no request came. This led to the conversation about safety and the various fees assessed by airlines. We first started to talk about the ever popular baggage fee. Have you noticed there are usually very few bags checked on a plane anymore? The fee encourages you to bring it on board. Of course this makes the boarding process longer, especially on very full flights. My favorite is when they have to “courtesy” check the bags due to the overheads being full. They always make sure you know it is a courtesy. The passenger I was with also wondered if the increased bags on the plan cause accidents as items shift while in flight. I did not know the answer, because I can only think of one time I saw an accident like that, and I am not sure baggage fees existed at the time. We discussed this, boarding process trouble, and even differences in weight distribution. Of course we both admitted not being experts in any way, just talking about Customer perceptions.

Now back to the exit row seats. We wondered what the FAA rules regarding emergency exit seating were. The woman asked a crew member in the back of the plane. The crew member told her that the FAA does not have a requirement for exit row seating. When the woman asked what would happen in an emergency, and the crew member explained that it would be the flight crew’s responsibility. This really had me thinking!

When the plane landed, I had a layover for a few hours, so I sat down and started to read more on the topic. I searched the FAA website as well as Google to find out more on the rules for emergency exit row seating. I was not able to find any rules that stated someone had to be seated there. The only rule I was able to find was the door must be able to be opened within 10 seconds, and the slide must deploy within 10 more seconds. I did not have a chance to test but I think it could be hard for a crew member to unbuckle, get there from one end of the plane to the exit row, and have it fully opened within 10 seconds. The other trouble with not having people in the aisle is other passengers may not know who is responsible, causing hesitation in the event of an emergency.  They would then have to unbuckle and work their way to the emergency row.  Also it is possible that someone not able to meet the requirements of the emergency row would be the closest to perform the task.  That makes me feel safe!

The airline industry has struggled in recent years due to changes in travel, low cost airlines, increased fuel costs and so many other factors. We all like to blast companies when they add new fees. At the same time, no one wants to see companies go into bankruptcy or worse, go out of business. It means loss of jobs and less selection. The trouble for many older airlines is they have high labor costs, and inefficient processes. Southwest, an airline that prides itself on not having as many fees has added things like early check-in, or business class (I forget the name, but they get to be one of the first 15 people to board – ideal since they do not have assigned seating). Maybe we can all help find ways with ideas to improve?

I do think this changes the game for the FAA. The emergency exit row seating policies were designed in 1990. At the time there was rarely, if ever, a shortage of people that wanted the exit row. No one could have ever thought of fees for sitting there. With fees, comes the basic rules of supply and demand; as the price goes up, demand goes down. What happens when there is no demand?

I did ask United if they were interested in commenting for this piece, but as of this point I have not seen a response. I will post an update if I hear from the FAA or United.

For Background, here is a NY Times piece by Joe Sharkey “Throwing Exit-Row Seats Into the ‘For Sale Bin

Other stories on airline fees from the Consumerist:

Ryanair Going Ahead With Pay-To-Potty Plan

Spirit Airlines Now Charging Up To $45 For Carry On Bags