Thursday, July 17, 2008

Occupational hazards

On my flight to Chennai a few days ago, I got a seat next to the emergency exit. This made for additional leg-room, which is always welcome, but it also meant that I saw at close quarters a flight attendant struggling with one of the most awkward jobs in the world: having to tell passengers how and when to use these exits. It’s a job that requires much friendly grinning and nodding, like you’re doing nothing more than casually discussing the weather, while what you’re really doing is bringing alive a nightmare scenario. The kid giving the brief looked like a newbie and tried hard to hit a balance between explaining things as clearly and professionally as possible while also keeping a smile plastered on his face to reassure his listeners that nothing would in fact go wrong. At least one of the three passengers he was briefing (seated across the aisle from me) looked like a nervous flier. The following conversation ensued:

Flight attendant: Sir, in order to open the exit you have to pull this handle down. But first look out of the window and assess the conditions outside. If you see smoke or fire outside, please do NOT open the exit.

Passenger 1 (possible attempt at light humour): But is it not dangerous to open the exit while the plane is flying?

FA: Not to worry sir, it won’t open in mid-air, no matter how hard you try.

Passenger 2 (looking nervous): You mean it opens only after we’ve already crashed?!

FA: Um, no sir, we don’t think like that. Actually it can be used if there’s an emergency landing or...

P 2: What’s the point? I’ll already be dead! (people in the seats nearby look around, suddenly interested)

FA: God forbid, sir (makes indeterminate religious gesture involving hand and head). Everything will be alright (smiles a Stepford Wife smile). And anyway, if one of you is... uh...erm...immobilised, then not to worry, we will also be apprising the other passengers about how to open the exit. Thank you for your time and patience.

The beaming doomsayer then turned to me and repeated the instructions, while I observed that two of the passengers he had just spoken to were leaving their seats with great alacrity and heading for the toilets.

Anyway, my confidence in my ability to open the exit (in the very specific circumstance of an emergency landing-not-a-crash that didn’t involve smoke/fire and would thoughtfully leave me alive and in full possession of my limbs) was dented when I found that I couldn’t open the plastic cap of the mineral-water bottle that was supplied to us. “I think it’s some kind of a test for the emergency-exit passengers,” I whispered to my impatient wife, “If you can’t loosen the cap, they send you to the back of the plane. Or upgrade you to first-class. Or do whatever needs to be done to the really incompetent passengers.”

Shortly afterwards, I heard one of the passengers across the aisle calling out to the flight attendant: “If we have to open the emergency exit and be the first ones out, does that mean we won’t have the time to take our hand-bags?”

Also overheard at boarding time:

Flight representative: Have a nice flight, sir.
Distracted passenger: What?
Flight representative: I said, have a nice flight, sir.
Passenger: Oh. Okay!


  1. Another weird thing - i found out that you're not allowed to sleep during take-off or landing if you're next to the Emergency. I was baffled more than irritated. is it a tacit admission that the plane is most vulnerable to a crash during landing and take-off? and is their biggest fear the possibility of a passenger sleeping through the crash and not opening the emergency exit?

  2. Umm... why cant these doors be opened from the cockpit? Not that it matters when your plane looses it's wings at 30,000 feet and your spine shoots out of your head after the impact... but still.... why cant these doors open from the cockpit...

  3. @fan apart: You serious? One cant sleep during take off or landing if one's sitting there?

    Wouldn't want the plane hitting the ground during landing, turning over, bursting into flame... and have the lazy fuck sitting next to the exit sleeping... that wont do.

  4. quite an interesting experience... my husband is a regular traveler and always prefers the emergency exit but i always try not to sit there... just in case something happens... u are responsible for too many people

    @saad akhtar,
    thats because in case of failure.... the electrical controls from the cockpit can stop working and the best thing to rely on is the manual mechanism

  5. what is with the caps of those plane water bottles? i've never managed to open one and usually have to rely on the passenger sitting next to me or feel really stupid and ask the steward/ess.

  6. Did you know they don't give those emergency exit seats to passengers with infants? Potently unfair. Presumably the logic is if anything happens *makes indeterminate religious gesture involving hand and head* people with kids would be too busy with them to open the exit. And here they try to tell us how safe air travel is. In fact, people with infants need the maximum leg space or any kind of space and they should get special priority for those seats, I think.

    While on the topic, do read this meticulously reasoned article by historian Ian Mortimer titled 'Why I Don't Fly'. I'm almost convinced.

  7. people with infants need the maximum leg space or any kind of space and they should get special priority for those seats

    Brilliant, until the people die in a failed evacuation because a parent is blocking the exit with a diaper bag the size of U.P. The amount of baby gear many parents carry is epic.

  8. In case they do succeed in opening the exit despite the diaper bag, will the baby be the first to get thrown out? Just a polite and reasonable question.

  9. Oh, do they explain the emergency exit too? I normally start losing any interest in the air-hostesses as soon as they begin the seat-belt mime, and I guess I start dozing by the time they reach the oxygen mask.

  10. Manish, yes, exactly, which is why they need LOTS of space. Is that so unreasonable? And do you really think opening the emergency exit will help if the plane blows up 30,000 ft above ground? Read Mortimer's essay.

    Jai, you insensitive child-hating monster! I will see if you can say such things when your wife's undeniable maternal instincts cannot remain unanswered and you have a brood of your own (though the thought of such a staggeringly erudite family is frankly scary). I have a little daughter and she's my life etc.

  11. yes, exactly, which is why they need LOTS of space. Is that so unreasonable?

    Yes, it is. Don't expect the rest of the world to pay for your misdemeanors.

    If the plane blows up 30,000 ft above the ground, the emergency exit will probably open up by itself. Modern technology is marvelous that way. But we're not addressing a situation like that one - we're talking about an emergency landing, where passengers have at least a 30 per cent chance of survival and where little things like the mobility of the person sitting next to the exit (who shouldn't be impeded by having to also take care of/worry about an infant) make a big difference. I mean, did it occur to you that when engineers first designed emergency exits on planes, they had more on their minds than the comfort of serial procreators?

  12. I started hating sitting next to those emergency exits the moment I realized that I can't recline the seat! Anyway it's a not great experience sitting next to those exits especially in an ATR flight. During every take-off I fear that I'm definitely going to use that exit before landing!

    And about mothers with infants. Imagine giving mothers the choice to choose between other passengers and their own kid. I think they've been kept away from those seats for good reason!

  13. A flight with emergency exit seat must be a curse from stars.