I was on a flight last week where they preboarded an elderly woman who was unable to walk or even stand on her own. She was given a handicap-accessible seat (the kind with the movable armrest so she could be slid from the boarding wheelchair directly onto the seat). Her seat was the aisle seat. Additionally, this passenger was rather overweight.
As the flight continued to board, the two women who had the middle and window seats next to hers arrived. The elderly woman was unable to stand and move so that they could be seated, so the window-seat passenger was forced to climb over her (generous) lap.
As if that weren't uncomfortable enough for all parties involved, the middle-seat passenger was a dwarf. Due to the fact that her legs were very short, she was unable to climb over the elderly woman's lap without looking like she was scaling Everest, and so she climbed over the seatback from the row behind her seat to access her middle seat.
I am not making this up.
Obviously, neither the window-seat nor middle-seat passengers would have easy access to the restroom. More importantly, though, and the purpose of this post: what if there had been an emergency? Those two women would have been trapped in their seats.
I have the ultimate in empathy for disabled passengers and believe that accommodations need to be made. However, putting other passengers at risk should not be included in that.
Jan 9, 11, 5:54 pm
I have also questioned this.
A few years ago I was on a ATL-ORD flight, I get to my row and there is a young man I saw in the boarding area in a wheelchair now seated in the aisle seat, his girlfriend is in the middle. I said I am in the window, the girlfriend climbs out and said "climb on in". He is a paraplegic and can not get up, so I crawl over him, stand on the middle seat and finally get into my window seat, quite ungracefully as I am only 5 feet tall. Both he and the girlfriend are very cool and we chatted during the flight.
I decide I am not going to try to crawl back over him when we land. Everyone gets off the plane, the FA said we called for your wheelchair to be brought up. There the 3 of us sit for 45 minutes. Several FA's and the pilot come over, apologize, say they "called down", "don't know what the delay is", ect... Well anyway it is almost an hour before the chair comes and he along with me are finally able to get off the plane. He felt bad, and said to me "go ahead just sit on my lap, I can't feel anything anyway" but I did not want to have to crawl back over him for a second time.
It really made me think about the airlines policy. I am not sure what would be better, but this situation, like yours, really gave me reason to think about it. Had there been an emergency, we might not have been trapped, but we would have certainly had issues exiting, as I am sure he would have.
I am also curious of how better this could be handled. Thoughts?
Jan 9, 11, 8:48 pm
Wheelchair user here, and I don't know the answer, either. On domestic flights (ie, flights that are short enough that I won't have to use the restroom) when I can, I get the window seat and slide all the way over so that no one has to climb over me. I have (on occasion) offered to switch with the person in the window seat if I get the feeling that my row-mates are very uncomfortable about climbing over me, but usually they're so shell-shocked by the concept that they don't process the offer well enough to accept.
On international flights, I sit in the aisle seat, because I figure it's more of an inconvenience (and spectacle) for the others in my row to get out of their seats and stay out of the way of the two flight attendants and the the onboard wheelchair that it takes to get me to the restroom.
As far as evacuation in an emergency is concerned, I don't think that the world or the airline can offer you any guarantees. Just because the person in the aisle seat is able-bodied (and disabled/able-bodied isn't binary) doesn't mean that person isn't going to obstruct the others in the row in an emergency.
The only thing I can say is that if I'm on an airplane in an emergency where evacuation is required, I will do my damnedest to get myself out (and out of your way). I don't think that anyone will come to rescue me.
Edited to add: I think in the situation the OP describes, the middle seat passenger who had so much difficulty getting into her seat should have asked the FA to be reseated. I'm sure there were other passengers who were perhaps younger, taller, and more flexible.
Jan 10, 11, 9:43 am
After 30 years of flying with a wheelchair I have probably sat in every conceivable position and seat on an aircraft. There is no simple solution.
Firstly, I think one has to accept as a permanent wheelchair user, that in the case of a serious airline emergency requiring rapid disembarkation we are going to be last in line. That doesn't bother me.
As to my seat position possibly blocking other, more able bodied passengers from rapidly exiting . . . well that varies. I am happy to sit anywhere the airline wants to place me, I really don't mind, all the seats are equally uncomfortable. I have sat on the aisle and had people climb over me more times than I can remember. I doesn't bother me. I have offered to move across (to the window) to give them freer access, but every time they refuse. Not once has my offer been accepted. People like window seats. It's their choice.
I have however found that the crew is pretty good at sorting out comfortable seating for most people, which clearly should have happened in the case of the original post (but which didn't for some reason). The more comfortable their passengers the easier it is on the crew. I have never seen anyone refuse a move in seating in order to provide a more comfortable flight for fellow passengers. I am sure if the crew, and fellow passengers, had been asked they would have found a solution that did not require seat climbing!
Jan 11, 11, 8:38 am
The airline doesn't like to put me in a window seat, but since I usually fly with my family, I get a window seat for one of them and just slide over after being seated. I prefer window seats.
Anyways, I don't understand why airlines want me in the aisle for the same reasons as in the OP. I do understand, though, that some are not able to slide over to the window. Maybe they just assume that most can't, and that the guys who do the transfers shouldn't be moving them more than one seat. This may be true since the OP said that the person was big. In an evacuation, however, surely the able-bodied person is going to go ahead and climb over or around them (some may even help the person with disabilities get out too, though not all would do that :( ). I doubt that they would just sit there in that case.
Jan 15, 11, 10:11 pm
There is a difference between not being to exit your row because you do not want to appear awkward or inconvenience a disabled person, and getting out of your seat in an emergency. Several years ago we were flying with our daughter. She had a window seat in the row across from us. The man in the aisle seat died while we were in flight. She had absolutely no problem crawling right over the top of her seat and leaving the plane when we landed.
I kind of think that in a serious emergency no one is really going to survive so I elect not to contemplate that issue. I use a wheelchair and I generally sit in the middle seat so my husband can have the window seat. I guess if I trap him in his seat it will at least be a member of my family.