Do We Need To Rethink Who Sits at an Emergency Exit?

In the aftermath of British Airways Flight 2276 and other similar incidents requiring an emergency evacuation, we’re reminded once again that a preflight safety briefing, along with the legally supported directions from flight attendants, is rarely sufficient motivation for a large percentage of passengers to take the evacuation seriously. With the apparent disregard for safety that passengers consistently demonstrate with regard to the highly relevant requirement to simply leave any personal baggage and belongings behind, perhaps we need to revisit the issue of assigning seating in exit rows to passengers ahead of traveling or paxing airline crew. Can passengers really be trusted?

Pax evacuating from Flight 2276... with underwear in tow

Most short haul airlines and a smaller number of international carriers will reserve exit rows for passengers that are prepared to pay a premium for the additional legroom. Some carriers, perhaps more sensibly, will reserve the seating for frequent flyers or reward members. While some airlines are required under union or other rules to assign exit rows to dead-heading crewmembers, it’s not always the case and it’s rarely enforced. Instead, carriers will honour the bottom line and put a few extra dollars ahead of the significant safety benefit.

The only occasion I’ve personally being offered an exit row and asked if I were prepared to assist in the event of an evacuation was with Virgin America. After ticketing (on an airline discount) I was advised that we would be entitled to the benefits normally paid for by premium “exit row” ticket holders. Whether that was policy or not at the time is unclear; either way, the encounter was just another that cemented the travel experience as one of the best I’ve ever had.

Armed with the knowledge that passengers often can’t be trusted to follow the most basic instructions – and while there’s absolutely no suggestion that the evacuation of Flight 2276 was compromised in any way by those seated at an exit (in fact, the starboard overwing exists weren’t opened and in a B777 are manned by cabin crew) – and knowing that passengers repeatedly perform poorly in an evacuation, can we really be confident that those assigned to exit rows will operate a critical overwing exit (near a potential engine or wing hazard) with the kind of authority that’s required?

Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 4 Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 6 Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 7

A large number of Flight 2276 passengers carried wheely-bags off the B777

The following video shows snippets of video from various passenger evacuations. The point is to demonstrate the large number of passengers that cause dangers by carrying large and bulky items of baggage off the aircraft.

It’s excruciatingly painful to sit through a safety briefing while those around you continue to work on their iPads or read a magazine. If traveling anywhere in uniform I’ve always made a very deliberate attempt to study the safety instruction card in a puerile attempt to guilt those around me into doing the same (the same takes place out of uniform with a lesser success rate). Frequent flyers and enthusiasts are often the worst offenders… mistakenly believing that their regular travel will equip them with the necessary skills to assist crew… and there’s no quality control whatsoever over the type of individual we assign this critical task to beyond a cursory evaluation on boarding.

Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 1 Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 2 Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 3 Flight2276 Pasenger Evacuation 5

A number of Flight 2276 pax also decided to stop and take happy snaps

While a passenger might have the best of intentions – and we’re in no way criticising passengers by agreeing to babysit a critical station – their inability to perform is no fault of their own… but rather poor airline policy.

Chris Manno's take on Flight 2276's evacuation

Short term memories (such as those required to operate an emergency station) are stored for as little as 18 seconds . To overcome the limitations of short-term memory, information must be periodically repeated or rehearsed by articulation, visualisation or some other means (not something that’s going to happen if the safety card isn’t studied). In general terms, while short-term memories necessary to efficiently perform in an emergency evacuation can be extended into a working memory (or intermediate-working memory, similar to a computer’s RAM), it’s a transient state and severely affected by stress, sensory overload, or interruptions such as reading the inflight magazine. With the stresses imposed by any emergency, we can’t possibly expect a passenger to perform. Add potential alcohol consumption and fatigue to the mix and it’s almost a guarantee that the assigned individual will screw the pooch.

Curb Your Enthusiasm. Why is Larry David flying in cattle class? FB

While an airline won’t force a passenger to sit in an exit row, and while the question is normally asked at ticketing, the above video does raise a good point: how does one know if they’re fit for the role? A University study a few years back by Cornwell’s Dr David Dunning and graduate student Justin Kruger determined that the incompetent or those suffering from an illusory superiority leads them to reach “erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it”. Just because a person thinks they’ll be able to assist in an emergency doesn’t mean they’ll be able to. Motivational psychology suggests that the roomy seat assignment will manifest a extrinsic bias that impairs ones ability to make a fair self-assessment when asked if they’re prepared to fulfil the exit row functions. Larry David was clever enough to realise that he wasn’t the best fit for the responsibility.

Manufacturers must demonstrate an evacuation in 90 seconds. An aircraft on fire, however, is a ticking time bomb with no absolute guarantee that cabin integrity will be maintained. Disturbing comments at the bottom of a recent BBC article tends to suggest many people don’t know this.

While we must rely on passengers when there’s no alternative, it’s time that airlines ensured that their own crew were positioned at emergency exits by default, and a system should be honoured globally that would ensure that when a trained person is available and traveling under any circumstances, they too should be assigned those seats.

Selling emergency exit seats is a financially motivated exercise that has taken precedence over safety and common sense. It’s time to rethink the policy.

Shortt URL for this post:


  1. Michael Campbell

    I am still a serving airport fire fighter, with 23 years experience. Years ago, if you had shown your pass to the crew at the check in desk, you were pretty much guaranteed an exit seat on the trip out and back. The nearest seat was supposed to be allocated on the day, to a fit, adult male.. I am not sure if that is still the case, but it looks like online booking and selling exit seats has changed things, so much so, that I don’t ask now. I was on BA 2276 the following day, with the majority of the people who were involved in the evacuation, though some chose to go home on a Virgin flight.

  2. Pingback: Add Twitter Buttons in WordPress Posts and Pages with Shortcode | Internoetics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *