Should Exit Row Passengers Be Allowed to Drink Inflight?

Over the summer American Airlines began offering complimentary (and unlimited) drinks in their Main Cabin Extra seating, coach seats with more legroom. They consider exit rows to be Main Cabin Extra, in contrast to Delta which calls their ‘Comfort+’ seats the section at the front of the economy cabin.

Back in June I wrote about flight attendant concerns with offering unlimited alcohol to Main Cabin Extra passengers.

It turns out the concern was one of customer expectations, that flight attendants would be at their beck and call to serve them drinks whenever they wished, rather than about passenger overconsumption. After all, first class passengers get unlimited complimentary alcohol too already. And coach passengers can buy as much as they want today.

Jonathan G. asks about “having a non/sober person handling the emergency window for prompt exit should it be required.”

I do not know of any airline which offers alcohol on board and that has a policy not to serve over wing passengers.

Airlines fly aircraft all the time without anyone sitting in the exit rows. It is not a safety requirement that someone be there to open exit doors.

Having done it I can say that exit doors open quite easily. I wouldn’t be worried about someone that has had a few drinks trying to open it.

The concern I’d have is someone that was so sauced they were a roadblock to exiting the aircraft. I’m concerned though with any similarly inebriated passenger who would get in the way of an orderly evacuation of the aircraft.

Flight attendants do stop serving passengers who are visibly intoxicated. I’ve also known flight attendants to cut off exit row passengers earlier, though I’m not sure that’s strictly speaking necessary.

If you were to ban passengers in the exit row from drinking on board you’d also want to ensure they don’t drink prior to flight. It’s not enough to rely on a flight attendant noticing visual cues during the preflight safety briefing of exit row passengers, because if they had just downed their last drink in the terminal prior to getting on board they might not be drunk yet when they acknowledge their exit row duties. The alcohol could affect them a little bit further into flight.

I really see the ‘alcohol in the exit row’ question as little different than ‘alcohol on a plane’. Passengers behave badly. When they do they sometimes put the aircraft at risk. And so do passengers who bring other challenges on board. Flying is incredibly small-d democratic. With hundreds of millions of people in the air a small percentage of those will always present a risk.

What do you think? Should exit row passengers be permitted to drink when they fly? And how would this be managed without relying on the judgments of thousands of individual flight attendants?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well, the odds that any pax sitting in an emergency exit row will save your life must be about 100 million to one for any flight.

    The odds that any pax sitting in an emergency exit row in coach could get enough alcohol from a flight attendant in flight to get drunk must be greater than that.

    So, personally, I think this is a solution in search of a problem. But if you wanted to be particularly anal about it, you could issue a directive that flight attendants should be particularly mindful of serving “excessive” alcohol to pax sitting in emergency exit rows. But the idea of denying those pax a drink or two during regular beverage service seems absurd.

  2. Kind of related question, I’m flying JFK to LHR on Wednesday and I can choose MCE for free. What’s better, the standard MCE seats which are 9 across or the exit which is 10? The outbound from London didn’t have the 9 across seats as it was a 777-300ER

  3. Its a non-issue. Cut off passengers who are too drunk beyond that exit row should be treated like everyone else. Last thing we need is for airlines to start arguing that should not serve alcohol to exit row passengers due to “safety issues” when in reality its all an effort to save a few bucks.

  4. I’ve sat in an exit row with an 87 year old very frail man with his arm in a cast ( in the window seat), the woman next to him brought it to the attention of the FA and she let him stay so ….. I’d rather have someone who’s had a few drinks than someone incapable of helping.

  5. Nanny State America. The sooner you all stop worrying about what everyone else on a plane is doing and look after yourself, the better. In other words, mind your own bloody business mate.

  6. While all this seems somewhat logically I’ve always wondered if passengers that are airline crew members like Non-Rev’s should be intentionally seated in exit rows. My thinking is that in the very slim chance that an emergency evacuation is needed these people have been trained on how to open the doors, deploy slides, safety equipment, etc. As a tall flyer I enjoy exit rows at times for the leg room but it kinda makes sense for a person on the exit door not to be drunk, frail, a child, physically or mentally handicap, etc.

  7. Prior to all the cost cutting, it’s been common to serve free alcohol onboard for years, not to mention the free alcohol in the lounges.. never been an issue before, why is it an issue now?

  8. @DaniniMCI I agree. It’s something I never thought of, but in an emergency you do want someone who not be so mentally impaired that they’re a liability for everyone else on the plane. The same way flight attendants are supposed to monitor all passengers, I’d think they would do the same for the exit row passengers.

  9. Gary, I have long told you (in previous discussions about pax alcohol consumption) that it is against the law to serve an individual who shows signs of intoxication. This is as true in the air as it is on the ground. If FA’s followed the law, as well as their training, then we’d only have Ryanair to worry about! ;^)

    I am all for establishing limits on how much alcohol pax can purchase onboard based upon the duration of the flight. The problem is that there are no universally accepted definitions for lefts of flight. But for the sake of discussion here, how about if we adopt the following:
    —> Short Haul – up to 750 miles (up to 2 hours flying time);
    —> Medium Haul – 750 to 2500 miles (2 to 5 hours flying time);
    —> Long Haul – 2500 miles or more (more than 5 hours flying time, INCLUDING all US transcon flights); and,
    —> Ultra Long Haul – in excess of 5000 miles (more than 10 hours flying time).

    So what if the rules and guidelines are strictly enforced as follows:
    a) It’s a given — no one exhibiting signs of excessive alcohol consumption be served, period, regardless of class of service;
    b) Pax (*not* exhibiting signs of excessive alcohol consumption) may purchase/consume the following: 1) two drinks on a short-haul flight; 2) three drinks on a medium-haul flight; 3) four drinks on a long-haul/transcon flight, including the “pre-departure drink” and glass of wine with dinner in F.
    c) Ultra-long haul flights pose their own problems, in part depending upon the meal(s) being served. It’s not unreasonable to have a glass of wine/beer/cocktail with lunch, and then more with dinner, and perhaps a nightcap. So the duration of the flight as well as the meals served and/or the time of day the flight departs need to be factored in somehow.

    The largest problem I see are the bean-counters, who see the profit margin on alcohol sales as something to encourage, regardless of the costs to and effects on passengers and crew. I would think that this is something the pilots and FA’s could unite behind.

  10. @Jason Brandt Lewis
    Silly suggestion to have a drink limit without factoring in physical attributes if the goal is to prevent intoxication. A 100 pound female will be affected dramatically different by 4 drinks than a 300 pound man…

  11. @Jason Brandt Lewis

    How would an arbitrary limit help at all? How would an overworked FA in coach be expected to keep track of every drink she served?

    Should the passengers be weighed prior to takeoff to set their limits? And should they be breathylized on boarding? Your limits go out the window for someone that’s consumed 5 drinks in the lounge before boarding.

    We cannot overlegislate these things; at some stage we have to rely on basic common sense – not all FAs exercise that but most of them certainly do.

  12. My buddy Dug is probably scratching his head on this one. I know I am. It could put the squeeze profits if these rows are excluded.

  13. Airlines should be forced to require sober pax sit in the exit row as well as able-bodied and functional pax. Airlines are in a catch 22 here, they have to have certain space reqs for the exit rows so they like to include those in their comfort + seating yet they should have to restrict benefits there for the actual purpose of the seats in those rows. If they can’t meet the reqs then I’d prefer an empty aisleway to the window exits…

  14. Of greater risk are the obese over eaters, particularly those that order multiple free meals in lounges to further their gluttony, who sit in exit rows and who’s sheer girth and inability to move present a significant danger to everyone on the plane.

  15. I am a fairly large man and always sit I the exit row. I’m also a the last guy you’ll want to deny a Scotch during a flight. Having been a bouncer for 2 decades I have experience showing people where the exit is. I can’t fit in the regular seats like all you little people, so I have to get those seats. But if you think you’re entitled to drinks and I’m not, you’re crazy.

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