Wednesday 29 March 2017

What's your exit strategy?

Gemma O'Doherty

First it was food, then it was blankets, and soon it could be toilets. But right now, exit rows are the latest cash-cow for penny-pinching airlines looking for novel ways to make a fast buck.

Continental Airlines has become the latest carrier to start charging for the additional seven inches of legroom provided by emergency-row seats, or so-called priority seating, as it's known in the trade today.

A fee of $99 (€73) one-way across the Atlantic has been disclosed by the airline as a guide price, but it has admitted that might rise depending on demand.

Continental is not alone in charging extra for the best seats in the back of the plane -- Aer Lingus and other carriers have been cashing in on it for some time -- but there is growing criticism about the practice on the grounds that it could jeopardise passenger safety.

If you've ever found yourself in an exit row, you will have been asked by an air steward whether you'd be willing to help out in an emergency. At the time, you probably answered yes, but did you really think about the consequences?

Would you, for example, have sufficient strength to hoist a heavy aircraft door and assist other passengers in the event of an evacuation? Would you stay calm if the cabin was filled with smoke and flames and screaming passengers, and would you be able to put other lives before yours? Or would you crack under pressure in the knowledge that your plane was in trouble and your life in jeopardy?

Business traveller Richard Owens only had a few seconds to mull over those questions when an air steward approached him sternly on a flight some years ago. The American frequent flyer was sitting at an emergency exit when crew discreetly called him to the galley to tell him the landing gear was failing to engage and a crash was possible.

He was given instructions and told to block passengers from leaving the exit door in the event of a crash until it was fully open and lying on the seat. As he returned to his seat, he could see fire engines and ambulances lining the runway below.

After a nerve-racking approach, the landing gear managed to deploy and the plane arrived safely, but Owens is now an outspoken opponent of airlines who sell emergency- row seating.

"I urge airlines never to sell exit- row seats," he says. "Invariably, the flight attendant will come by and say, 'Do you realise what it means to sit in this row?' And sometimes I see people in the exit rows just nod their heads and say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah', even when it seems they really have no idea."

One airline, however, is bucking the trend. US Airways refuses to sell exit-row space because it says it cannot pre-screen passengers for fitness through website bookings and does not know in advance if someone has the dexterity to handle a heavy door.

The importance of emergency exits was highlighted in January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 crashed landed into the Hudson River in New York and all 155 people on board escaped through the emergency hatch unharmed thanks to the superb work of crew and passengers.

So, next time you stretch back in an exit-row seat, think twice about the massive responsibility you might be faced with during an emergency.

If you think you wouldn't be able to cope, ask the crew to find somebody else who could.

You might be doing the whole plane a favour.

Irish Independent

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