Exit Strategy

I received quite an honor recently and I can hardly contain my excitement. While I’m not one to normally brag about my accomplishments, this was a pretty huge deal that I feel compelled to share. Last month, on a flight from Charlotte to Detroit, I was one of a very select group of passengers deemed willing and able to assist in the unlikely event of an emergency. That’s right. I was seated in the exit row.

            I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

            Okay, I know what you’re probably thinking right now: “Alison, I am so proud of you and should I ever be on a plane with you I would totally elect you to be one of the people in charge of getting me safely off the airplane in the event of an emergency.” Thank you. That means a lot.

            Sadly, there are no actual elections for this honor, but I do think the FAA should consider this in the future. Every day, thousands of passengers select exit row seats for little more than extra legroom without considering the magnitude of that decision or being vetted for this serious undertaking. I might have been an exit row rookie, but I wasn’t here to rest or recline. I was ready for action.  

            As I boarded the plane, I could already tell this flight was going to be different. The series of beeps that alerted the gate agent of my “special status” was the first sign. She quickly asked, “Are you okay sitting in the exit row?” We both knew what she really meant – that while the pilot would be responsible for safely flying the plane, I would be ultimately responsibility for safely ushering my fellow passengers off that plane should anything happen. I was basically agreeing to serve as one of the flight’s first responders. I looked her in the eye and said, “Of course.”

            Walking to my seat, I was obviously emitting a certain confidence and air of authority that the flight attendants could detect. One even gave me a knowing wink, as if to say, “Yep, we’re all counting on you.” As I took my seat I immediately surveyed the others in our exit row to size up their potentials. It was not a promising sight. These people looked hardly willing or able to do much of anything. One guy was playing a game of virtual pool on his smartphone, while another was already asleep on the job. Never mind that most of these people could barely get their suitcases in the overhead compartment, much less remove a 60-pound window on demand. I, of course, was the only one carefully reading through the safety information card found in my seat back pocket. Luckily, I am a frequent flyer, a first-born rule follower, and quite superstitious, so I read this placard before every flight and always look around the plane to locate the nearest exit, since it might be behind me.

I knew the likelihood of encountering an emergency was remote, but not impossible. I couldn’t help thinking about the US Airways flight that made an unpowered emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009, and Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the now famous pilot who is credited for getting all 155 passengers and crew to safety. But what about those men and women who sat in the over-wing exit row and whose longing for extra legroom became their legacies that day? Where are their Wikipedia pages?

            When the flight attendant came by to reiterate our exit row responsibilities, I thought about those unsung heroes and offered a firm, “Yes,” as my verbal contract and commitment to the job. For the next 80 minutes, I was on high alert.

I heard a baby crying behind me and made a mental note to let women and children through the window first. I tried to estimate the number of steps it would take to get to the window, since I was seated on the aisle, and pictured myself leaping over my fellow passengers with the speed and agility of a gazelle, if and when necessary. When we ultimately landed safely in Detroit, I exhaled a sigh of relief and wondered why no one else was clapping. As I exited the plane, the captain actually came out of the cockpit to thank me personally for flying with him. I choked back the tears and told him it was an honor and a privilege.

I am sure Wikipedia will be calling me any day.