Letters of Consumer and Social Concern


To Whom It Concerns at US Airways,

Please be advised that you are in receipt of a letter from the Department of Letters of Consumer and Social Concern (DLCSC).

I recently flew to Portugal (from the U.S.) on your airline and, in the long cruise across the Atlantic, and then across the Amber Waves of Grain–home to Portland, OR–came up with several questions and concerns, which prompted this letter from the DLCSC.

I have compassion for the airlines. After a careful observation of the cross-section of our country you are ferrying all over earth (thank you!)–just the hospitality component of this equation alone, not to mention any of the magnificent logistical, engineering, commercial and federal elements at stake in owning an airline–I can see that I would have no place dabbling in your industry.

My first concern is kind of an aside. I have always wondered at some level about the whole opening act of boarding the airplane: the whole choreographed performance of the attendants, gesturing (the international language) about exit rows, oxygen masks dropping, the puzzling philosophy of treating yourself to oxygen first, then your offspring (in the newer video/animated version of this enactment, the mother looking strangely calm while the child looks up at her, yearning for the oxygen)–and the most puzzling of all to me: showing the plane’s citizenry how to buckle the rudimentary seat belt, a seat belt which has not changed apparently since the invention of the airplane. I cannot recall any commercial flight experience, anywhere, ever, in which I was not carefully shown how to buckle my seat belt… all such measures insuring some scrim of safety and organization in the event of, say, a wing being ripped off, the plane hitting water, a door thrown open in mid-flight, or the vessel going into a flat spin because of mechanical error or a storm. I know there must be some careful design about this opening drama of sitting down on the plane, a kind of catholic ceremony, or hypnotic crescendo of authoritative gesturing, red stripes on exit rows, bright electric signs over egress ports, points of oxygen to huff anxiously in case of catastrophe (probably more for calming effect than for survival, since if such a measure were required it would likely mean thin air flooding the cabin on account of missing fuselage, which means that temperature in the cabin would be a much greater concern), floating seat cushions, and then the very puzzling seat belt thing, as though we are children strapping ourselves into the day care bus… that might just fall out of the sky.

On this trip I sat in an emergency exit row twice. It was this experience–in which the individuals sitting in the exit row(s) are directed by flight staff to the instruction literature which will make them heros if it has to be followed–that I fully realized my concerns. Watching the opening drama play out, then hearing over the PA, “…if you are seated in an emergency exit row, please review the safety information card, and speak to a flight attendant if you do not feel suited to perform the duties of…” and I thought, I am in an emergency exit row, and I might have to operate this equipment in the event of a crash landing, I should definitely take a look at this safety information card. I also thought, Hell, yes, I am the one to perform this duty! There is also the language business of being in the emergency exit row: they say that you must understand English and they need a verbal confirmation that you are prepared to undertake the required actions, etc. Most people, including myself up until this point, just say “yes” and do not look at the literature because all they really want is the extra leg room.

On this particular flight, from Philadelphia to Portland, the woman in the row in front of me (also an emergency row) said “What!?” in a thick Spanish accent in response to the attendant’s question. Her husband next to her answered, “She does.”

The attendant replied, “I need to hear it from her.”

The man nudged his wife (perhaps sensing the impending loss of leg room) and said, “Say ‘yes’!” The woman looked at him confusedly, getting the imperative from her husband in English. They spoke briefly in Spanish and then the woman blurted out, “Yes!”

The attendant continued on to the rest of us, moving on only after we answered in the affirmative, Yes I understand English, and Yes, I will perform the duties. Watching the attendant’s face, which seemed filled with an appropriate level of gravity, I realized that I had never fully grasped the seriousness of the exit row: you are the shepherd of the emergency door in the event of aeronautical disaster. So I asked her, “Where is the safety card for the emergency exit row?” She pointed to the seat pocket in front of me.

Surprisingly, the card contained a pretty unintelligible graphic explanation of what to do in an emergency (that actually required no knowledge of English). One item the little brochure heavily reviewed is how to buckle your seat belt, as though we had not gone over that already. It likewise showed the barred smoking symbol. Do not smoke during the crash either. It moved on to a graphic of the plane flying over mountains (perhaps we crash there?), there’s the head-between-the-knees-and-pray scenario, another visual of the oxygen masks dropping down and the serve yourself thing, and then two images of how to open the door next to me. I cannot understand these images, there are opposing arrows to a relief in the door’s interior plastic, but the image does not correspond to the actual door I’m looking at here. I have installed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of complicated German hardware, but I cannot understand this picture of how to open the huge plastic door in the emergency exit row. I keep ‘reading.’ The next images seem to be about the real specifics of the emergency exit row, scenarios in which to not open the door (depicted with a thick red bar through them). There are four images:

1) Shows flames outside the emergency door (don’t open the door if the outside of the plane is on fire, makes sense).

2) Shows smoke outside, or clouds, I can’t tell (perhaps early stages of fire on the outside of the plane, also don’t go out there).

3) Shows water outside the window (even though another image shows an inflatable slide on the wing and people slipping down it into a dingy… and they’ve already mentioned, at least twice, that our seat cushions are also flotation devices). Still, according to this, don’t open the door if there’s water outside.

4) Shows palm trees outside.

I look at this carefully. I cannot understand numbers 3 and 4. I ask my neighbor and he, like everyone else (and me in the past), cannot be bothered to educate himself about emergency exit row procedures, and is already starting to fall asleep, happy with the additional leg room. I ring the call button for the attendant and ask her about the images. She looks at the card I’m holding up to her and I can tell from her expression that this is the first time she’s looked at it. She says, “Yeah, don’t open the door if the plane is on fire.”

“What about this one?” I say, pointing to number 3. She says, “That’s not going to happen.” Which is true for this particular flight, Philadelphia to Portland. But still, it’s baffling. Other people in the rows across the isle are looking at me while I ask these questions, and like the attendant now, seem uncomfortable with someone actually trying to figure out what to do if the plane crashes.

“And this one?” I say, indicating number 4.

She looks at it for a moment, then says, “I guess if it’s Hawaii, open it.”

A couple of people behind me laugh; it becomes clear that this brochure, rather than being a strategic or even practical guide to a plane emergency, is more in-keeping with the opening ritual placebo of boarding the plane, buckling your seat belt, getting high on oxygen, and sliding down an inflatable yellow slide, that wouldn’t even take place because you’re not supposed to open the door if there’s water outside, or even if you land in paradise.

I ponder the likely possibility in the event of a crash landing that the interior of the plane would devolve into painful chaos, in which the unprepared people of the exit rows would be just as involved… and it seems to me that it would make more sense for the airline to say at the outset, “If you are seated in an emergency exit row, in the case of an emergency procedure, do whatever the hell you want.”