Exit row seating age raises safety questions

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The age at which airline passengers can be classified as “adults” raises questions about the effective operation of emergency exits in the event of an aircraft evacuation.

The problem came to light when aviation journalist Seth Miller shared a screen-capture of a Bahamasair reservation screen, which listed the qualifying age for exit row seats as being at least 8 years old.

It is possible that the figure was a typo – intended to be 18 years – though the airline has not confirmed. Bahamasair classifies passengers under 14 years of age as “children” in its unaccompanied minor policy.

Looking into the rules that apply in various aviation regulatory jurisdictions shines a light on other conflicting and confusing information.

For example, US FAA regulations require that exit row occupants be at least 15 years old. Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority also requires exit row occupants to be at least 15 years of age, as does the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

However, rules differ in Europe. British Airways states that, according to UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations, an exit row occupant must be an adult. In the specific terms and conditions, the airline states the age as 12 years or older. This is consistent with the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) definition of an adult at 12 years, which the UK CAA references in its own regulations.

However, this age definition is not intended to guide exit row seating as a standalone factor. The root of this definition for “adults” is in the handling of ticket sales and unaccompanied minors. IATA has classified minors – to govern fare structures – as children up to 12 years. These children are also considered unaccompanied minors if traveling alone, and offered the corresponding guardianship services. Children older than 12 are classified as adults when calculating fares and can travel unaccompanied.

Runway Girl Network contacted the UK CAA to clarify how this age rule is applied to exit row regulations. Spokesperson Richard Taylor said that 12-year olds would not qualify to sit in exit rows based on the full requirements for exit row occupancy, which include physical fitness to carry out the duties.

“Although children are not explicitly excluded from emergency exit rows, the implication is that they would not be physically capable of assisting an evacuation. Ultimately, cabin crew must make the judgement call during boarding,” he said.

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Transport Canada’s rules match the UK CAA and EASA. They emphasize the physical fitness of a passenger to operate an exit row, but do not set a minimum age. This leaves airlines like Air Canada qualifying passengers to travel in exit rows as “adults” when they are 12 years or older.

By basing exit row age qualification on fare structures, an unaccompanied 12-year old child might find herself or himself in a position to operate the exit row during an aircraft emergency. But even the age limit of 15 set by the FAA and other regulators seems inadequate to unlatch and lift a heavy exit door, and deal with  pressure from other passengers during an emergency.

Crew can re-seat any passenger, regardless of age, if they believe the passenger would be unable or unwilling to assist with emergency exit operation during an emergency, but this puts a lot of pressure on cabin crew to make last minute determinations. Concerns over the need to better manage exit row assignments are not new. A comprehensive report by the Flight Safety Foundation dates back to 2001.

Airlines don’t have to limit themselves to these regulations. They can use judgment and raise the age specified for exit rows on their reservations systems to reflect a more reasonable level of physical and mental maturity.

Separately, in response to concerns by lawmakers and industry stakeholders concerning the validity of the assumptions that drive FAA aircraft evacuation standards – including the agency’s use of simulation testing to certify new aircraft – the US DOT Office of Inspector General intends to conduct an audit to assess how changes in passenger behavior, passenger demographics, and seating capacity affect aircraft evacuation standards.

The Inspector General’s office will also assess the FAA’s process for determining whether aircraft as currently configured meet evacuation standards. Consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, which has been fighting for minimum aircraft seat size standards, is hailing the audit as “progress”.

It is unclear if the age of passengers in exit rows will be addressed in the audit.

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