Flight Safety

I have to fly to and from my home office pretty regularly. Being a tall guy, I like seats with extra legroom so I don’t get crushed into tiny pieces. Those seats are either in the front of coach or on the exit row seats. I like to get aisle or window before I take a middle seat and overall, I favor the forward seats.

I also walk with a cane because I have balance issues on uneven ground or if I stand in an area for a long period of time, like over 15 minutes of standing in a go will be really hard on me. I can walk quickly and have no issues lifting or doing short bursts of high activity in a small space, such as if, oh I don’t know… had to assist in an exit row.

So one day, I’m going to sit in an exit row because the window seat was there and not further forward. The gate attendant notices that I’m in an exit row and I have a cane. He jumps to an assumption and questions if I can properly handle exit row duties. I assured him that I could, but he was still on the fence about it. He shrugged it off finally and left it a matter for the flight attendants to adjudicate.

That made me want to know more about how exit rows work.

That led to a search for any documentation on airplane evacuations and, surprisingly, there is hardly anything on the subject. What there is gave me a fascinating read: https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/safety-studies/Documents/SS0001.pdf

Critical to exit row functionality is the ability to judge whether or not a running engine, fire, or debris makes the exit safe. Right up with that is the ability to follow instructions from the flight attendants on whether it is a debarkation – where all passengers leave via the front and rear exits – or an evacuation, where wing exits are involved. Flight attendants are also supposed to be in communication with the flight crew so that they can coordinate the safest debarkation or evacuation possible. Neither of these criteria are assessed or enforced. There was one incident, for example, where 5 of the 6 persons in an exit row were either too frail to operate the door – they were over 70 – and another three did not speak English well, which was the language the flight attendants were using to direct the evacuation.

Instead, the primary aim in filling those seats is monetary, for the airline. The seats cost more and those who buy them are placing their comfort above other concerns. I confess that I buy them with comfort in mind, but always with the intention to fully discharge my duties as an observant exit row passenger. Now that I’ve read the linked document, I feel even more prepared and committed to my future as a conscientious exit row passenger.

But there’s still that monetary matter. Seats have shrunk over the years and there have been little or no studies of the impact of tightly-packed seats and narrower aisles on safety. We have opinions from the NTSB and FAA OIG that studies are needed and that they suspect passengers and crew are less safe with denser seating in play. Safety tests on these planes we fly were often done long ago and with fewer occupants and wider arrangements than what we have now. We need to know if we are now less safe because of decisions made to change the plane configuration without testing it. I have to ask, where’s the priority, here, money or safety?

Flight crew safety is another matter – sometimes, those planes are being delayed because the captain and his crew are trying to get something to eat. First class eats better than the flight crew. They get worked to the maximum on their shifts and permitted rest breaks as law and regulation demand. I wish it was otherwise. Something in me wants a fresher, better rested crew in charge of putting me into the air and back on the ground safely.

Putting the money issue back into play, alcohol is freely served to exit row passengers. Some expect it because a complimentary alcoholic beverage goes with the seat class. There have been exit row passengers who consume enough alcohol to the impairment of their ability to clearly reason, and yet, there they are, with passenger safety in their hands. I’m not comfortable with that. Personally, I do not drink alcohol, so I feel even more strongly about my capability to function in an emergency as an exit row passenger.

Which means, next time a gate attendant looks at my cane and questions my exit row assignment, I’ll be able to plainly lay out my case. I won’t need to be difficult or preachy about it, just state my case plainly and honestly. Then I make the suggestion of having exit row passengers pledge to not consume alcohol and pass a limited language test in which they respond correctly to phrases such as “throw the door on the wing after you remove it.” If they’re really concerned with safety – and the man looking at my cane was concerned, and I commend him for that – they’ll add those to the visual scanning for physical capability. They’ll also add a verbal briefing from the flight crew on operating the exits, as that makes the exit row passengers better-off at handling emergencies. If they’re not concerned with safety, then there’s no need to apply any sort of discriminatory test to passengers in the economy plus seats that happen to be next to wing exits.

Myself, I can operate the exits better than ever before, now that I’ve read up on the topic. You want a passenger like me in your exit row, I can guarantee that.

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