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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


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

Comments (30)

Wow, I’d have thought they would WANT someone to be in the exit row!

I’m also amazed that they asked someone to pay extra to sit in those seats! What???? I’ve never heard of that!

I’ve actually wondered about this myself. Another question would be what happens if you buy an exit row seat, but don’t meet the requirements (because you’re elderly, disabled, etc.) do they refund your money, bump you to first class, etc.? I don’t think safety features should be revenue raisers.

As a side note, Spirit Airlines is now charging for carry on bags. Wonder how that will change flying.

Thanks for the comment! According to a few stories I have read, they refund. We will see what it is like in practice.

Thanks for the comment. I added a link to a NY Times article for background

Brandon, Spirit is only charging for bags that go in the overhead bins. No charge for something that will fit beneath the seat in front of you.

The doors with emergency slides are usually right next if not very near to the inflight crewmembers.

Thanks cjones. I should clarify that these are the over the wing exits

I think a lot of it depends on the exit plan, if they don’t have someone to operate the door, they may decide not to use the overwing exit.

I’ve seen one emergency evacuation on a runway years ago back when I was working for Southwest, A Delta 757 was evacuated and the overwing exit doors were not used.

I have a friend who is still a flight attendant, I will see what she says.

CJones has a *great* idea. Ask a flight attendant.

My take on it is that the litany of questions is asked of fares seated in the exit row as a courtesy to the customer — not to enlist the customer as a temporary crew member.

Play out the scenario: In the event of an emergency evacuation, a crew member could legally trample uneducated customers seated in the exit rows in order to fulfill his or her duties. Note that most of the questions are concerned with the fare’s ability, desire, and disposition to work with his community (crew & other passengers) in the “unlikely event” it is required. The crew member has 20 seconds to look the passenger in the eye and determine if he is a liability or an asset to the crew in the event of an evacuation. Think of it as the world’s shortest behavioral interview.

Why dost thou speculate rather than asking informed sources?

Let me see if I can shed some light on this subject…

FAA does not require anyone to be in the Exit Row for take off or landing… Flight Attendants are trained to open & use these exits in the event of an emergency, We would open these exits, Even if passengers are sitting in the Exit Row.

FAA requires Flight Attendants to ask “The questions” of passengers in the Exit Row prior to the aircraft door being shut in case we need to relocate a passenger who is unwilling to help in the event of an emergency, Not to enlist the passenger as a temporary crew member! This came about after an aircraft incident where passengers informed the NTSB they were not aware they were in the exit row, & Didn’t try to open the exits! (Sad but True)

As far as charging passengers extra for sitting in the exit row, My Airline does not do this (yet),, I do know these seats cannot be reserved & are not released until the day of the flight, so the gate agent can verify and ask passengers “You are aware you are in the Exit Row?” Then we ask again as you are boarding & then again on the plane, Understand we are required by FAA to preform these functions.

I hope this helped a bit….

I’m not sure the airlines really take the exit row regs seriously. Here’s an experience I had while flying over the summer:


Just providing the link for the sake of storytelling…

[...] Time to be Frank » Blog Archive » Having Someone in An Exit Row on a Plane is Not an FAA… [...]

I flew in the eighties and nineties without getting exit row seat. Never thought about it too busy sleeping.

I would think an incentive to fill the seats would be 1st on the airline’s make-more-money list, however, it appears the airline is taking a defensive position “in the unlikely event” a passenger sues. And making a few bucks.

Nice post.

It is remarkable, it is the valuable answer

this happened to me yesterday on a united express flight. i am going to raise hell about this. if it is ok, i am going to use this story. please get back to me

[...] plane exit seats eliasonfamily.info [...]

I am happy to report this practice still happens. On my way in an A319 to Dulles and 97 seats open. All exit rows open.

FAA does not require it since the main exits are the doors. Window exits are only used as a last resort, like announced during the safety briefing when it comes water landings. As far as a land evacuation, the doors are sufficient. Each airline is required to perform in front of the FAA that their training program provides for the allotted 90 seconds to evacuate and aircraft regardless of the size and amount of passengers. It takes more time for a each passenger to duck their head, step out one leg first than the other which is required of exiting the window exits. Door exits keep you upright and is faster.

As for flight crew exiting their seat… A flight attendant is trained to exit their seat within 2-3 seconds. It may seem like it would take longer since the have the lap belt as well as the shoulder harness but it can be done in 2-3 seconds and a second or two to open the door since they sit right next to them. Well under the 10 seconds allotted by the FAA.

Happy travels all!

More food for thought. In an evacuation, it is safer at the door…why? No moving parts! No engine with a spinning fan, no flaps or leading edge that can move depending on if the hydraulics are malfunctioning, no EGT ( exhaust gas temperatures) oh, and no fuel which could be leaking. EGTs are usually upwards of 300 degrees Fahrenheit just FYI.

YouTube the China Airlines 737 that caught fire in Japan. Could you imagine if someone opened those window exits? The fire would have spread faster than it did. Luckily everyone got off since they used the doors only.

The only reason US Airways used the window exits in the Hudson incident was because someone opened the rear doors when they shouldn’t have. Aircraft are always tail heavy due to the tail, horizontal stabilizer, as well as the APU (auxiliary power unit) located in the tail.

A little knowledge goes a long way.

Happy travels!

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