Are You Willing to Open this Exit?

For today’s flight (which will soon have a whole other post of it’s own) I worked an aisle position that involved my briefing the passengers at the over wing exits. Usually this procedure is pretty routine. I ask everyone if they’re willing to open the exits in an emergency, they say “yes”, I brief them on how to do so, and confirm again that they’re comfortable with this.

Except today one woman in the aisle seat of an exit row said no. Or rather, she said “I’ll be too petrified to open the exit.” At first I thought she was joking. Passengers often joke, although it’s usually along the lines of “Sure! That way I can be the first off the plane.” Keeping in mind that I thought she was joking, I said “I need you to be able to open this exit.” This time she said, “I wont be able to”

I then notice that she’s been crying, which I had originally mistaken for allergies. Her husband who is sitting in the aisle seat across from her now tells me that she’s terrified of flying.

Obviously the flight can’t take off if I knowingly have a passenger in an exit row who is unable to operate the exit. It’s a matter of moving her to another seat. However I have a number of challenges to over come:

1) Our exit rows provide amble leg room, because of this there is an “upgrade fee” associated with sitting there. We have some seats in the front of the aircraft with extra leg room, again with a fee associated with them. She is only willing to move if she gets the upgraded seats she paid for.

2) Due to her fear of flying, she MUST sit next to her husband. Husband now needs to be moved as well.

3) Due to the fact that they are both in aisle seats, NO ONE in the front upgraded seats is willing to move.

The first thing I did was informed her and her husband that I’ll need to relocate them because I need to have willing and able people in the exit row. I then quickly extinguished their concerns about the leg room by informing them that we have similar upgraded seats in the front and I’ll find someone to switch them with. I also added “This way we’ll have you nice and close to the front end FAs who’ll make sure to take good care of you.” That was the easy part, as it’s entirely beneficial to them.

The hard part was moving someone from the front few seats to the overwings. First off, I tried an honest explanation along the lines of “I need two volunteers to move to the exit row. I have a passenger who isn’t able to open the exit that needs to be moved before we can take off.” to see if anyone would be kind enough to switch. I actually had a couple (we’ll call “the newly weds”) who was willing to go, until I mentioned that they’d be moved to two aisle seats. After that everyone said “Thanks, but I’m comfortable here”.

In the upgraded section, there WERE two open seats, one directly in front of the other. I asked the couple if that would be acceptable, but unfortunately she had to be next to her husband so he could hold her hand. I don’t blame her. A fear of flying is a fear of flying, and you have to do what ever it takes to deal with it.

Finally I had to pull out the big guns. After getting approval from my cabin manager I went back to the newly weds, got down to eye level and asked “Would you be willing to take the exit seats if I offered you a complimentary alcoholic beverage?” The husband then asked “Can you explain again why you need us to move?” This time I explained in detail that this woman was petrified of flying and said out right that she wont be able to open the exit. That I was stuck in a legal obligation to find a new seat* for her before take off.

(*Although I didn’t actually HAVE to put her in an upgraded seat. When you buy an overwing upgrade, you are agreeing to sit there under the condition that you’ll be able to open it. If you can’t/won’t or if I don’t believe you when you say you will/can, I just have to move you to any other seat.)

This time the newly weds reluctantly agreed, adding “I’d better get an extra large rum and coke!”. They weren’t happy. I thanked them and helped them get their luggage… well they sort of piled other people’s luggage on me to get their own without asking. Although I wasn’t about to make a fuss over it as I needed them to move.

I led the newly weds down to the exit row, and at this time their whole attitude changed. Once we got there, the woman was again in tears. I told her we found some seats for her up front and she was instantly relieved. I think once the newly weds saw the situation for themselves they realized that what I was asking of them had a meaningful reason. Suddenly it wasn’t so bad that they had an aisle in between them. After this point they were all smiles and happy to have been able to help.

I was finally able to brief the exit rows! I did so quickly but clearly, thanked everyone for their attention, and again thanked the newly weds for moving.

Right after take off I brought out their beverages. I even added a lemon slice and snacks and served it on a silver tray for extra fanciness. Once they had their drinks I informed them I’d be happy to provide them with complimentary wine for the duration of the flight. An offer that they appreciated, although never used.

They later even told me that they thought I was doing a fantastic job and were very happy.

As for the woman with the fear of flight and her husband; I made sure to check up on them regularly and made sure they were comfortable.

9 thoughts on “Are You Willing to Open this Exit?

  1. Tough situation and resolved well. I’m hearing excellent ‘people skills.’ Congratulations!! And you know that it could have been far more difficult. What if… You can talk about that some other time. An excellent post, Jet.
    -Craig

  2. You have handled the situation so perfectly even though it was probably not easy because you had to quickly secure your cabin right after… I take this situation as an example if it happens to me someday… Yesterday I had to give my crewmeals because we had not more TSUs and Casseroles… But at least the passenger was happy to enjoy my chicken thai!

  3. Azur, I’ve given away crew meals before as well… Usually when we run out of veggie options and someone needs it.
    It’s very nice of you to do that since you’re not at all obligated to do so!

    You ran completely out of TSUs?? That’s no good on the caterer’s side!

  4. OK, guys. I give up. For the benefit of a non-FA, (Just a Self-Loader, usually in “J”, what is TSU?
    As for meals, yes, most “J” seats still have them… I usually get my first choice, but the “sorry, we’re out,” substitute has been just fine. I don’t think I’ve ever been served a Crew Meal. Regardless of type, quality or qnantity, I would not want to deprive working crew of their own meal. Working crew need it far more than I do, p-l-e-a-s-e… As a mostly “J” rider on a lot of airlines, if I get a clean seat, a steady stream of sparkling water and a quiet seat partner, I’m a happy camper. If I’m really hungry, I’ll accept whatever meal is available. I know how awful the meals can be (even up front) and I try to eat before boarding when possible. If I ended up eating a crew meal and a working crew member went without, I would not be a happy camper. It is very kind to substitute your own meal in some situations, but I also think that it is going a bit too far. Good and generous service is one (ver nice) thing, but you do not want to establish higher standards than your company can regularly maintain. Be careful, dude!
    -Craig

    • A TSU is the cold portion of the meal tray. I’m a little rusty on what exactly it stands for, I think its “Tray Services Unit”. It’s the tray itself, along with crackers, cheese, cutlery, bread, etc. The “casserole” is the hot portion of the meal, which is stored separately until its time to serve the meals.

      As for giving out crew meals, it’s not something that happens too often. I can’t speak for other FAs, but I’ll only give out a crew meal IF the person cannot have the only option left (IE, is a vegetarian, allergic, etc) and ONLY if we have an extra crew meal. Many times the crew don’t eat them because there is no time or they have already eaten, etc. After the flight we’re not allowed to take any meals, so what ever is left simply is thrown away.

  5. My pet peeve is crew giving away meals when we’re exact-catered. Actually, at one airline I’ve worked for, giving of crew meals is forbidden by the union, for the reasons stated above. It maintains unrealistic expectations of catering levels by passengers (SOMEONE has to miss out on a first choice at some point) and it deprives working crew of their (contractually entitled) meal.

    As the the exit rows, I’d probably have done the same thing… except with the addition that until someone moves, we can’t take off. I didn’t have the problem of extr charge for exit rows on Domestic… so basically if I couldn’t find a listed staff travelle ron passes, I’d try for anyone willing to move. Of course I’d try swap aisle for aisle, window for window etc…

  6. Good point on the meals traytable! Even if the caterer under caters the aircraft, FAs are not required to give out their crew meals. In fact, chances are the crew need them more than the pax do!

    Something I’ve noticed at my airline is that we usually have extra pax meals. On most (although not all!) of the flights I’ve worked in this short time we’ve successfully given every pax their first choice.

    But like I’ve mentioned before, If we have an extra crew meal (which happens often, as our pilots tend to bring their own food) and if I speak to the crew and they’re okay with myself giving my meal away, I’ll consider doing so if its for a good enough reason. (vegetarian requirements, for example)

    But even in those circumstances, I’m not obligated to give out a crew meal. The pax should have special ordered a meal if they have dietary requirements.

    I think I should write a whole post dedicated to this subject! It seems to have some energy to it!

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