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!