On a recent trip to Mexico City, luck struck just when I least expected it. It was a crowded coach flight, but the busy agent at the United Airlines check-in desk suddenly smiled at me and said the magic words: "I gave you the best seat in the house -- exit row".
"Why, me?" I wanted to ask, knowing that they don't just hand out exit row seats to women over 50. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I assured myself that 50 is the new 45 and harried to the plane. I quickly settled in my seat before they changed their mind! Luxuriating in my roomy accommodation, I couldn't help but feel sorry for all the unlucky souls who had to squeeze into their tiny spaces. Life can be so unfair sometimes.
Almost immediately, though, a stewardess came by and instructed myself and another lucky young man sitting across in the other exit row, to read the manual to verify we can fulfill the required obligations. The other passenger didn't seem to bother with the request, but me, being a conscientious person and confident in my abilities, I grabbed the EXIT ROW SEATING SELECTION CRITERIA, a manual put out by the federal Aviation administration, and was immediately put to the test:
"No air carrier may seat a person in exit seat if it is determined that it is likely that the person would be unable to perform one or more of the applicable functions listed below or depicted on this safety card because the person":
#1 -- "Lacks sufficient mobility, strength or dexterity in both arms and hands to grasp, push, pull or otherwise open emergency exits", etc. Mmm... I've been complaining lately that I have lost muscle in my arms and hands to the point that I have difficulty twisting open the caps on water bottles. Can I now actually be counted to push, pull and lift open the exit door?
This is not good, but it's only one category. Nobody is perfect.
I moved quickly to check the next criteria:
#2 -- "Lacks the ability to read and understand instructions related to emergency evacuation..." My mood darkened as I recalled my lifelong problem of tuning out instructions of any kind. I even had to switch from aerobic classes where I needed to follow instructions, to sports like walking or swimming that were of my own design.
Yes, with therapy, I discovered this bad habit started in childhood when my mother sent me daily to buy fresh groceries and afraid that I'll forget items, repeated them ad nauseum. I reacted by tuning her out completely and thus forgetting most of the items, which prompt my mother to repeat herself even more, and the cycle continued...
But knowing how I got this problem didn't really help me kick it. Didn't this vice, together with an aging memory that made me immediately forget what I've just read, made me a liability in emergency?
Please tell me this is not happening... I started to sweat... Was there a point to really move to the next criteria?
#3 -- "Lacks sufficient visual capacity to perform without visual aid"... Here I relaxed a little as I can read without glasses. But then I remembered that I wear glasses for distance and when I need to read, I usually put them up on my head. The problem is that every time I lean forward, they fall off. Clearly, glasses on the floor are not going to be a big help during an emergency stampede.
One more criteria, maybe I'll be saved... I started to read:
#4 -- "Lacks sufficient capacity to hear and understand instructions shouted by flight attendants without assistance of hearing aid"...
O.K. now I'm really busted. At 18, while I was in the Israeli army, I trained to shoot on an old, creaky, noisy rifle and consequently lost 30 percent of hearing in one ear and 10 percent in the other. My husband stopped going to the movies with me because I kept interrupting him throughout with: "What did he/she say?"
It was becoming clear that I'm the worst candidate to ever sit in the exit row and I must immediately relinquish my seat to somebody more qualified. I looked from my roomy seat to the cramped seats around me and was not ready at all to make the tough decision. What is the chance of an emergency evacuation anyway -- one in a million? And why would an experienced agent put me in that seat if he didn't think I was sufficiently qualified?
The solution came naturally. I looked up at the other lucky exit passenger. While he didn't seem to bother reading the instructions, this young man in his 20s had strong arms, no glasses, and answered me in adequate English. Perfect! With my education and his muscle, its clear we make the perfect exit row team. The flight is safe.
I relaxed in my roomy seat. I'm on vacation. No need to sweat the small staff. Things have a way of working themselves out whether it's fate or just good luck empowered by survival instincts... When you're over 50, they become part of your emergency tool kit...
As for the future, will I disqualify myself from the exit row? Hell no. Since most passengers don't bother reading the instructions, wouldn't the airlines prefer a flawed but conscientious person? A problem-solver who understands teamwork?
I think so. After all, isn't it what they mean by UNITED WE STAND?