May 17, 2005 -- "Of course I can open that hatch if needed!"
It's the battle cry of the long-legged coach passenger who's figured out that even a middle seat in the emergency exit row of most single-aisle airliners has as much leg room as first class. There are even small turf battles among the highest-level members of different frequent-flier plans as they try to jockey for priority seating in the emergency exit row. And experienced travelers know how to sidle up to the agent at the departure gate and request to be one of the defenders of passenger safety, in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.
Because that's exactly what you're asking for when you accept or request an exit row seat: The responsibility to move fast and efficiently to open the hatch in the it-almost-never-happens-but-could event that your jetliner has slid to a stop on the ground and the flight attendants relay an order to get out of the airplane fast.
That moment -- as utterly rare as it is these days -- is not the time for realizing your shoulder won't handle 40 to 50 pounds of unhinged door.
Lying to Get More Leg Room
Yes, it's true that our human capabilities are greatly boosted in a dire emergency because of the rush of adrenaline (among other biochemical changes), but physical limitations can still cause major problems. We've all seen someone in one of the exit rows we just know couldn't really move fast or with much physical strength if called on to pull open one of those hatches.
And some of us have smiled and nodded and said "yes" to a flight attendant asking if we're ready, willing and able -- even though we know we're really not. That extra leg room, after all, comes as a welcome relief from the ridiculously tight seat "pitch" most coach customers these days are subjected to.
But here's the reality: If you can't do the job, not only could you get yourself trampled and seriously hurt by other passengers trying to get to and through that hatch in an emergency evacuation, you'd be imperiling the lives of many or all on board with any delays or substantial mistakes.
The bottom line on physical qualification is simply that in too many cases only the passenger really knows if he or she is fit to be there, and if that passenger lies about it, a link in the causal chain of an avoidable disaster may have just been forged. In other words, an otherwise successful evacuation could be thwarted and precious, life-preserving seconds lost if the wrong person says "yes" and remains in the exit row.
Those hatches are heavy! Were talking about 40 to 50 pounds, and that's not just weight as in a suitcase you can lift carefully by a handle from the floor, but dead weight you'd have to lift intact from the interior of the window frame, hold at chest level, and either thread back through the window to throw it clear, or place it on a (now hopefully empty) seat.
That takes upper body strength, reasonably strong arms and back, and very fast, clear-thinking action.
Why Not Train the Passengers?
Airline flight attendants and pilots are trained to open those exits and have done so probably many times in their recurrent training. But there aren't enough of us in an off-duty status to man those seats, and most airlines make no effort whatsoever to find out whether any of the passengers on a given flight have been so trained. Consequently -- other than excluding someone with obvious physical limitations -- the matter is left to the flight attendants' quick observational skills and to our own honesty as passengers in the same aluminum tube.
I have long advocated that airlines offer emergency exit training to their best customers in their training centers, perhaps on the weekend (feed them a lunch, show them a good time, people would love it), and then certify those passengers for priority seating in the exit row. But so far no airline has been bold enough to try it, and we end up far too much of the time just inherently knowing that up to a quarter of the people flying in those seats would be hazards if we ever needed them to open the hatch and get out of the way fast.
It is true that the latest models of the Boeing 737 (the 700, 800, and 900 series) do not have this problem because their emergency exit hatches open outward on an upper hinge, and it is true that others such as the Boeing 757 have certain rows called "exit" that really are little more than normal entry doors on a side hinge. But for the earlier versions of the 737, the Airbus line, MD-80s, DC-9s and others, the emergency exit hatch is still going to require a brief but intense physical battle to negotiate.
Now, I know it isn't comfortable to talk about these things. Airline briefings for years have been so carefully sanitized of any language that might be alarming that passengers tend to think of the cabin as a sort of bizarre version of their living room. And, in fact, we've become so incredibly safe that you could easily argue the chances of an emergency evacuation on any given flight is infinitesimal.
But the reason you see more and more flight attendants taking the time to get a verbal response from each person in the exit row is the rising level of concern that the responsibility attached to those seats is being ignored, and we simply can't afford to let that continue.
John J. Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst, is a veteran 13,000-flight-hour airline captain, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He is also a New York Times best-selling author of 17 books, a licensed attorney, a professional speaker, and a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation. A native Texan, he now lives in Tacoma, Wash.