Friday, June 16, 2017

Does an Airline have the Right to Kick Overweight Passengers out of Exit Rows?

The answer, generally, is yes. Within certain parameters, individual airlines have the right to design their own rules with regard to passenger safety and fairness. Interestingly, one of the most successful airlines in American history - Southwest Airlines - is also one of the most controversial in this area. It, as well as AirTran and Alaska Airways, now have policies which ban the largest passengers from sitting in exit rows. Passengers on Southwest flights in recent weeks needing seat belt extenders have been told they are not qualified to sit in exit row seats. Since Southwest does not have assigned seating, it doesn't know who is going to sit - or attempt to sit - in exit rows on its flights until the passengers are already on board.

As many of you know, the minimum requirements for sitting in an exit row, per Federal Aviation Administration regulation, are:

1)    to be at least 15 years old;

2)    to be able to follow directions[1]; and

3)    to be capable of opening the door, including lifting up to 50 pounds.

These are minimum requirements, and airlines have the right to add their own additional - and presumably reasonable - requirements. Southwest is now enforcing a policy that prevents passengers who need seat belt extenders from sitting in exit rows, with the justification being that seat belts with extenders attached reach down to and across the floor, creating a tripping hazard for persons attempting to exit the airplane in an emergency. (Although not mentioned by Southwest in its public statement, it's also easy to envision an unfastened end of a seat belt extender flying back and forth through the air if a plane is in trouble, easily injuring or even disabling someone attempting to pass through the exit row and out of the plane.) 

In 2009, the Society of Aerospace Engineers (many of its members are experts on aviation safety) authored a position paper which concluded that exit row seating requirements and regulations are not strict enough. It pointed out that, based on studying past airline disasters, an exit row obstacle causing mere seconds of delay could mean the difference between life and death.


I am not obese, and have never been, and thus cannot credibly put myself in the place of those passengers needing seat belt extenders.  However, for years I traveled frequently all over the United States, often sitting in exit rows, and often on flights in or out of south Florida. As such, I'd often look at the partially disabled senior citizens sitting right next to the exit door and wonder how in the world such a physically weakened individual was allowed to sit there.  In fact, on more than one occasion, I actually had very brief conversations with other able-bodied passengers nearby, wherein we agreed that, in case of emergency, I would handle one of the doors and they the other, as clearly the passengers closest to the doors were going to be a hindrance and not a help.

The bottom line, to me, is that safety is paramount. If there is even a small chance that a reasonable change in exit row seating requirements will make my loved ones safer as they fly the not-always-so-friendly-skies, I approve of that change. An exit row seat is not a right, it's a duty.

[1] Following directions on a US flight typically includes being able to understand and speak English.  This is why good flight attendants, before take off, ensure that each exit row passenger verbally responds in English when agreeing to perform duties required of exit row passengers.

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