I found out about the seat belt extender policy on a recent Southwest flight when the attendant told me that I was disqualified from sitting in the exit row if I couldn't close the standard seat belt.
As someone who is tall and overweight, I like sitting in the exit row because it offers the most room in coach. I'm sure plenty of skinny and short people feel the same way. After all, in terms of comfort, the exit row is as good as it gets flying in coach.
The Federal Aviation Administration set minimal standards for sitting in an exit row back in 1990: One has to be at least 15 years old, be able to follow the airline crew's directions, and be capable of opening the exit door, which equates to pushing around 50 pounds of weight. But the agency left it up to the airlines to develop their own exact exit row seating rules. In my case, I fell victim to Southwest's enhanced rules, which equate wearing a seat belt extender with not being able to open an emergency door.
Extenders Described as a Tripping Hazard
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King e-mailed me this statement without going into any detail: "The reason behind the policy is safety,'' she said. "It supports our ability to assist passengers in exiting the aircraft in an expeditious manner in the event of an emergency."
But Alaska Airlines, which has the same rule, gave me more detailed explanation. Spokeswoman Bobbi Egan says that the seat belt extender creates a "potential safety hazard." "With an extender, a seat belt can stretch across the floor and could become a tripping hazard for people exiting through the emergency exits."
I guess that makes sense, but then shouldn't laptop cords be banned in the exit row as well?
I'm also wondering if seat belt extenders are such a potential exit row hazard, then how come American, United, Delta and US Airways (LCC) don't have the same policy?
Of course, any relatively frequent flyer has seen passengers sitting in an exit row who just might not meet the minimum FAA regulations to open an exit door. Then there is the issue of hidden disabilities: How do we know that the passengers sitting in the exit rows are mentally and physically capable of performing their duties in the case of an emergency?
Airline consultant Scott Nason, a former top operations official with American Airlines, said he doesn't understand the seat belt extender rule. "That seems a bit capricious. It is easy to imagine a wide variety of circumstances in which the flight attendant might be at least mildly suspicious of the passenger's capabilities, but we don't (generally) put them in the position of confronting most passengers who claim to be able.''
Fat People Aside, Exit Row Standards Are Too Lax
Of course, if airlines were really serious about having only qualified passengers sitting in the exit row, they would take the steps to make sure that those passengers could open the exit door. For example, exit row passengers could go through a strength screening after their security screening. Each potential exit row passenger could be asked to push a 50-pound boulder or open a mock emergency exit door. The test could even add some amusement to the airport experience. After clearing security, passengers could watch the exit row volunteers complete the strength test.
You might think I'm joking, but in a 2009 research paper, the Society of Aerospace Engineers concluded that airline exit row standards are too lax. The paper, written by aviation safety experts, and based in part on National Transportation Safety Board airline accident reports, found that exit row seating standards need to be tightened. Citing prior aviation accidents, it noted that a delay of only a few seconds in opening an exit door may have fatal effects.
"Airlines need to improve their standards for evaluating who sits in an exit row as well as ensuring that passengers understand the responsibilities," the report said. It noted that many passengers are like me: They request exit row seating because it offers more legroom, not because they want to bear the safety burden of their fellow travelers.
The Society of Aerospace Engineers also criticized exit row briefing presentations as "cursory" and "minimal in nature," saying they consisted only of asking passengers if they are aware of being seated in an exit row and are comfortable with their potential safety duties." The SAE recommends that the presentation for exit row passengers be more extensive to ensure that exit row passengers understand what is required of them in the event of an emergency.
While the SAE does not embrace my idea for a strength test in the airport, it does actually offer some sensible ideas that could be implemented. It says an airline's frequent flyer members who want an exit row seat could be prescreened on the airline web site by requiring them to complete a survey about visual and aural capacity, dexterity, strength, mobility, primary and secondary languages. Another suggestion: Passengers physically demonstrating the ability to meet the selection criteria to a designated air carrier representative, for example, by providing a doctor's statement that the passenger can lift 50 pounds.
For the last several weeks, I have been trying to get the Federal Aviation Administration's view on the matter. Finally, last week FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette emailed me this brief explanation. "The FAA believes that the current rules adequately protect the public," she said.
It's good to know we have someone looking out for our safety in the skies.