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.