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The emergency exit row is often one of the most “coveted” places to sit on a plane. I get the feeling that this is mostly due to the extra legroom in those rows rather than any sort of altruistic desire to aid their fellow passengers. If you’ve ever sat on a plane in or near the emergency exit row, you have likely heard the flight attendants ask all the passengers in the emergency exit row if they are willing and able to assist in case of an emergency.

But what happens if nobody sits in the emergency exit row? Does that make the flight “unsafe”?

a large airplane flying in the sky

On a flight with nobody in the emergency exit row

Recently my son and I visited all 5 counties in Hawaii with 5 inter-island Hawaiian flights. In addition to having sprint half a mile because my flight landed 18 minutes before my connecting flight was supposed to take off, I was also on a flight with nobody in the emergency exit row.

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We were flying Hawaiian Airlines and as you can imagine, the inter-island flights rarely fill up an entire jumbo jet. When I boarded (last, of course, due to the aforementioned sprinting), there was an elderly couple sitting in the emergency exit row. When the flight attendant came by to give the standard safety briefing, they looked shocked like this may have been the first time in their life that they had been asked to assist passengers in case of an emergency. On the flip side, they appeared to be taking this possibility and potential responsibility very seriously, which is unlike most people I have witnessed in the emergency exit rows, who mumble “Yes” and seem more interested in the legroom.

They decided they were not willing (or not able?), and they were reseated in another row on the plane. So the plane pushed back with nobody in either of the mid-cabin emergency exit rows, on either side.

an airplane window with seats and seats

Although most of the flights that I fly have people in the emergency exit rows, this wasn’t the first time I had seen emergency exit row seats empty. But I think it was the first time I saw literally EVERY emergency exit row seat empty.

During the flight, a few passengers got up and tried to sit in the emergency exit row seats (mostly to look out the window and take aerial shots of the Hawaiian islands we were passing), but each time the flight attendant made them move. He said that they could sit anywhere they wanted on the plane except the emergency exit rows.

What Happens If Nobody Sits In The Emergency Exit Row?

So all of that got me wondering what happens if nobody sits in the emergency exit row seats? Clearly it’s not a huge problem since otherwise I assume the FAA wouldn’t let planes take off without these rows manned. I mean you hear stories sometimes of people being on completely empty flights all by themselves! For whatever reason, I often tend to be sitting in seats a row or two behind the emergency exits, so I have thought about this a bit. Sometimes I look at the people sitting in emergency exit rows and think “man if there is an actual emergency, those people are not going to have a clue what to do.” I like to think that I would be conscientious about knowing my responsibilities if I were sitting in an exit row. I mean I’m one of those people that actually pays attention to the safety briefing and reads the safety card. If there was an emergency, deep down at places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that door!

In any case, as we were deplaning, I asked the flight attendant about that. What he said is that the FAA requires that anyone sitting in an emergency row to be “briefed” and to state that they are willing and able to assist in case of an emergency. I knew that (that’s why the flight attendants always give the exit row briefing before each flight), and that makes sense to why he wouldn’t allow anyone to move and sit there.

(SEE ALSO: REVISITED: I’m taking my bags in an airplane evacuation)

Then I asked him “well who would open the emergency exits in case of an emergency if nobody is sitting there?” and he said that he (and the other flight attendants) would. He said that is the primary duty of flight attendants, and any passengers sitting in the exit row are just there to assist the flight attendants (and presumably to open it in case the flight attendants are busy with other tasks or incapacitated).

The Bottom Line

So, there you have it. The FAA mandates that anyone sitting in the emergency exit row must be briefed by flight attendants before takeoff and agree that they are willing and able to assist in case of an emergency. Anyone that hasn’t been so briefed cannot later move to and sit in an emergency exit row. But, if nobody sits in an emergency exit row, it’s fine (at least according to the FAA). The flight attendants have the primary role of making sure that the emergency exits are opened in case of an evacuation. Personally, part of me feels like it would be better to have someone (almost anyone?) there than nobody, but on the other hand, having looked at some of the people that sit in emergency exit row seats, I’m not sure they inspire me with a ton of confidence.

What do you think about cases where nobody sits in an emergency exit row? Would it be better to have someone (anyone) there than nobody? Leave your thoughts in the comments

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