Image: Cramped coach
Paul J. Richards  /  AFP/Getty Images
If you've flown coach, you know how welcome the extra inches of leg room that come with the exit-row seat can be. But with the seat comes responsibilities.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/12/2009 9:58:37 AM ET 2009-03-12T13:58:37

Who doesn’t enjoy being seated in the exit row? The seats assure cramped passengers extra inches of legroom and are an airplane’s most coveted feature.

They’re usually assigned to top-tier frequent fliers, passengers who have paid an extra fee, those who ask nicely or folks who are simply at the right place at the right time.

In exchange for that extra space, however, the FAA expects airlines to make sure that, if needed, you’re willing and physically able to perform potentially lifesaving duties during an emergency.

So here’s a quick test: In case of an emergency, which passenger would you rather have seated in the exit row on your next flight?

  • The pot-bellied businessman who spent an hour in an airport bar and who says “Don’t worry pretty lady, I know the drill,” when the flight attendant asks him to read the instructions for opening the emergency door;
  • The guy recently arrested at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after he rushed into first class, opened an exit-row door and slid down the inflated emergency chute before his plane reached the gate?

I’d pick the latter. Really.

The guy may have been off his medication that day, but at least I know he can actually open the exit door and scramble off a plane quickly.

Could you? I’m not totally sure I could, although my frequent-flier status gets me exit-row seats fairly often. I am always diligent about reading the emergency instruction card, and I do make a note of which way the door opens. And I always say “yes” when a flight attendant asks me if I’m willing to help out should there be any trouble.

Although I exercise and am normally quite nimble, I’ve never actually picked up a 50-pound door and heaved it aside.

Is anyone serious about their seating?
Mike O’Brien, on the other hand, is confident that he could open that door and do whatever is needed in an emergency.

He flies almost every week for his job in the machine tool industry and was seated by the window in the exit row on my last flight. I noticed that he read the instruction card and studied the door handle even before the flight attendant came by to ask if he was able to handle the responsibilities that came along with the seat.

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After our unusually bumpy landing, I was relieved to find out that he’s also a volunteer firefighter who takes exit-row duties to heart. “If you’re going to sit there you should definitely know what to do,” he said.

With mishaps like the recent US Airways splash-landing in the Hudson River, the crash at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and last December’s Continental Airways runway skid in Denver, you’d think all passengers seated in exit rows would be paying more attention to their responsibilities.

But a flight-attendant friend told me that since the recent crashes, she’s actually noticed an increase in passengers not taking the situation seriously. Another flight attendant complains that many frequent fliers aren’t even courteous enough to make eye contact when a crew member is giving a safety briefing.

Is saying ‘yes’ not good enough?
Inattention to exit-row instructions is not an issue for flight attendants alone. Many fliers are concerned as well.

Alan Stolzer is a frequent flier and an aviation sciences professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. While the FAA requires airlines to make sure that exit-row passengers meet the criteria set forth in a five-page list of exit-row regulations, Stolzer notices that airline crew members are sometimes lax about enforcement.

“Flight attendants are often uneven about what they say to the passenger and about what kind of response they’re looking for,” he said. “I’ve seen some flight attendants do a thorough job and others just walk by.”

Like flight attendants and other travelers I’ve talked with lately, Stolzer has a few ideas that might help passengers better understand their exit-row responsibilities.

“There could be a mock-up of an emergency exit door at the airport so people can try to pull that door out and set it on a seat,” says Stolzer. “Another idea would be some sort of incentive program where people could get a discount if they’re able to pass a course. There’d be an extra cost to the airlines associated with that idea, so I’m certain most airlines would not jump at that opportunity.”

Going above and beyond
Why stop there? How about prohibiting passengers in the exit row from wearing headphones that might keep them from hearing emergency announcements? Maybe they should be refused alcohol so they are alert and focused.

An FAA spokesperson says the agency did consider the alcohol ban, as well as the idea of requiring passengers to actually operate an exit door in the gate area, but those rules didn’t make it into the official regulations. (Flight attendants, by the way, are not permitted to continue serving anyone that appears intoxicated.)

And perhaps all airlines should deny exit-row seats to anyone who needs a seatbelt extension. Actually, that’s already on the books at Southwest and several other airlines, but some people believe it should be an official part of the FAA’s regulations.

And then there’s the list of recommendations for safety briefings published just this past January by a panel of experts from the Society of Aerospace Engineers.

Their report points out that the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful emergency evacuation can be just a few seconds and that “any delay by a passenger in opening an exit may have fatal effects.” So the committee offered up a list of suggestions on how to improve the assessment and training procedures for exit-row seating.

Here are some of the ideas I found most intriguing:

  • Airlines should determine if a passenger fits the criteria for exit-row seating “at or before arrival at the passenger loading gate,” especially when passengers can self-select seats (as in, don’t wait for passengers to board the plane to start identifying problems);
  • Passengers in exit-row seats should be among the first passengers to board the airplane to allow time for an individual pre-flight briefing;
  • The creation of an alternate way to expedite the screening and briefing process, such as a “promotional safety program” that pre-qualifies a passenger as an exit-row passenger;
  • The requirement that crew members verify that exit-row passengers still meet the selection criteria before the plane lands, in case someone has “changed seats or become ill, intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated.”

The prospect of instituting just one or two of the above ideas may seem like a lot of unnecessary extra work and hassle for passengers and crew members already frazzled by modern-day travel. But some changes are definitely needed to ensure passengers take the duties more seriously because, as professor Stolzer puts it, “when the cabin is filling with smoke is a bad time to be figuring out what your job is.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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