On Exit Rows, Fees And Discrimination

Continental Airlines started charging passengers for exit row seats last month, an idea I hated even before a recent case in Britain  illuminated the conflicts that arise when an airline confuses a safety feature with a revenue source.

A British couple in their 70s paid Thomson Airways extra to sit in exit row seats on a flight to Egypt last month but were initially told at the airport that they were too old to fly in an exit row, as The Telegraph reports. As in the United States, regulations in Britain require that passengers in an exit row be physically capable of opening the emergency exit doors — but there is no upper age limit.

The couple was eventually allowed to sit in the exit row on the flight out, but said they were denied exit row seats on the return. Said the wife: ”Thomson must adopt a clear and cohesive policy about selling extra leg room seats.”

And that’s the problem right there. These are only coincidentally “extra leg room seats” even if the airline markets them that way.  They’re exit row seats, with extra space not so that passengers can stretch their legs, which is merely a nice side benefit, but so that all the passengers will have room to get off the plane in a hurry if need be.

That’s why there are restrictions on who can sit in an exit row, restrictions that necessarily run counter to our ideas about equal treatment and discrimination. Children under 15 may not sit in an exit row, nor may seriously disabled people or those who don’t understand the language spoken by the flight attendants.

I don’t know whether this couple was physically capable of opening the emergency exit door, which is the responsibility of those sitting in an exit row. And I don’t know how you go about determining who can lift a 50-pound door, unless you want to do testing in the gate area.

That leaves gate agents and flight attendants to make their best judgment calls. It’s probably pretty challenging to evict anyone from an exit row, and somebody who paid extra for it is sure to be extra indignant.

That’s why charging extra for exit row seats could, quite conceivably, compromise the safety of everyone on a plane. Because the people who can afford it aren’t necessarily the people who should sit there.

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