In the emergency exit row, written rules, unwritten rules and growing controversy

emergency exit row

As personal space on planes continues to shrink, all eyes are falling on the last place where you can still enjoy a small amount of dignity: the emergency exit row.

The rows leading to the “overwing” emergency exits usually still have the humane 36 inches of space necessary for quick egress during an evacuation. They also are often occupied by experienced air travelers who mind their own business. If you’re not in a special class or in one of the bulkhead seats — those in the first row of the cabin, which also have more legroom — the emergency exit row is the next best place to sit.

The emergency exit row has its own rules

But, as many air travelers are discovering, these coveted seats come with their own rules — and not just the written ones laid out in the Code of Federal Regulations and clearly disclosed when you get the seat assignment. There are unwritten rules, too, which can trip up even experienced passengers.

Let’s start with the written rules. The Federal Aviation Administration has numerous regulations that govern who can, and can’t, sit in an emergency exit row. You have to be at least 15 years old. You must have sufficient mobility, strength and dexterity in both arms, hands and legs to assist in an evacuation. Possible duties include operating the emergency exit and exit-slide mechanisms, and removing obstacles between you and the emergency exit.

Also, you have to be able to hear and see well enough to help during an evacuation. Most important, you must understand the crew’s instructions and be able to follow them. In other words, the FAA considers emergency row seating a safety issue.

Unfortunately, the airlines, in their efforts to monetize everything on the plane, have designated the exit row seats as “premium” because of the extra legroom. Most economy- class seats only have between 30 and 32 inches of “pitch” — an industry term for the distance between rows — and the air carriers figured correctly that passengers would be willing to pay more for the exit row. The result is that they’ve blurred an important line between safety and amenity.

Can you handle a seat in the emergency exit row?

To further complicate things, whether a person belongs in the exit row is largely a matter of self-assessment. Flight attendants don’t have the time to test your strength, vision, hearing and comprehension before the flight, so they rely on you to evaluate yourself.

“Oftentimes people opt to pay for the emergency exit row but are not capable of operating the exit,” says Brett Manders, an international airline pilot and author of the book “Behind the Flight Deck Door.” Still, they believe that because they’ve paid for the seats, they should be able to sit in them.

Ricki Cytryn, an analyst from Potomac, Md., remembers a flight attendant asking her and two other passengers in an emergency exit row whether they could lift the 45 -pound door. They nodded yes, and the flight attendant walked away.

“The woman on the aisle turned to the two of us and said, ‘I hope you can lift that door — because I certainly can’t,’” Cytryn says.

Results may vary

Emergency exit door weights vary, according to the FAA. Some doors, such as those on an Airbus A320, weigh only 32 pounds. Almost all the Boeing 737’s emergency doors open automatically, so there’s no need to lift anything.

Besides whether you can help in an emergency, there are other things to consider about exit rows, according to Manders and others. On some international flights, for example, you must stow your luggage in the overhead compartment instead of under your seat. Also, the seats in front of the exit row generally don’t recline.

Now for the unwritten rules: Several travelers and experts tell me that although airlines will serve alcohol to passengers in the exit row, it is considered good etiquette to abstain. After all, even the most capable passenger can be incapacitated by one drink too many, which could put lives at risk. They also note that it’s unwise to sleep in the emergency exit row. Because, well, it’s the emergency exit row.

Other unwritten rules

Another unwritten no-no: XL fliers. Thomas Snitch, a frequent air traveler who works for Bowling Green State University in Ohio, recalls a recent flight from Washington to San Diego. “There was a gentleman in the exit row window seat,” he says. “He weighed about 400 pounds. The issue was raised with the flight attendant, who asked him, ‘Can you help in an emergency?’ He said, ‘Yes, and I am not moving.’ ”

Snitch doubts that the passenger could have helped during an evacuation and believes that the attendant should have moved him. But in a way, you can’t blame the passenger for coveting the exit row. After all, there’s a reasonable amount of legroom with the seats. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

If you worry about forgetting some of the rules, you might take comfort from this: Airlines love to seat “deadheading” crew members — who are traveling between airports for work — in the exit rows. If that’s the case, there will be someone to ensure that you observe exit row etiquette.

It would be easy to remedy the exit-row safety situation. Airlines could just move the rest of the seats in economy class further apart, to 36 inches of pitch, taking away the incentive to sit in critical exit row seats. If that’s not feasible, then they should at least stop charging extra for sitting in them. Being asked to pay a premium for the exit row gives travelers the impression that it’s simply a privilege. But it’s not — it’s also a responsibility.

Posted in The Navigator Tagged , ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

%d bloggers like this: