Airline Safety:
What Happens When You Can See Fire On The Wing?

by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          For at least a half dozen years a major argument has been raging about whether blind persons should be barred from sitting in the emergency exit rows on commercial airplanes. The National Federation of the Blind has led the fight for what it calls nondiscrimination, and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the nation's airlines have led the fight for what they call safety. The Federation has repeatedly said that if a safety question is really involved, it does not want blind persons to be allowed to sit in the exit rows; and the FAA and the airlines have just as vehemently said that if a safety question is not involved, they do not want to discriminate against the blind. So what is the truth, and what are the facts? Is it safety, or is it discrimination?

          To begin with, some ground rules of reason have to be established. It is not enough to show that a given blind person in a given instance may block an exit or pose a safety hazard. Blind persons are just as diverse and variable in their behavior and characteristics as sighted persons are. If the blind as a class are to be barred from sitting in the exit rows, it must be shown that they are not being held to a higher standard of conduct than others in the general population and that there is something about blindness that makes the blind less capable of dealing with an emergency than the ordinary passenger who might be seated in an exit row.

          The Federation has repeatedly pointed out that if safety is the only consideration, no one at all will fly. But just as in using automobiles, there are tradeoffs, and we are willing to accept a certain amount of risk in order to go where we need to go and get our business done. In fact, not traveling at all would also involve safety hazards and carry with it a price tag, one that would be too heavy to bear. So we choose to travel, knowing that it involves a certain amount of risk.

          The next fallback position for maximum safety in air travel would probably be to place trained, healthy airline officials in the exit rows, but the airlines say this is unacceptable because of the lost revenue from those seats and the cost of hiring the extra personnel. So it is not just that we are willing to accept a certain amount of risk to have air travel but that we are willing to accept additional risks to improve the economics of it.

          If we go to the next fallback position for maximum safety, it would probably be to widen the exit row aisles and have no one sit in them at all. This would at least save the cost of training and hiring extra personnel to be there--though still depriving the airlines of the revenue which they now make from the paying passengers who sit in the exit rows. Again the airlines are not willing--and again for the same reason, economics. As they point out, they have enough trouble making their business pay even as it is.

          Then perhaps the airlines could at least refuse to sell liquor to people who sit in the exit rows or ask for volunteers to sit there who do not intend to drink anyway. They decline to do the first of these things because of lost revenue and the second because of concern about frightening the passengers by reminding them of possible crashes or in-flight emergencies.

          Of course, none of this makes the case for permitting blind persons to sit in the exit rows, but it does demonstrate that safety is not the only (or perhaps even the prime) factor being considered. Before coming to the main argument advanced by the airlines, we must dispose of a couple of matters which are sometimes used to cloud the discussion. Regarding the liquor issue, the airlines say that they will not serve excess alcohol to any passenger, let alone those who sit in exit rows. Regardless of rules and protestations to the contrary, this is simply not the truth, and all you have to do to prove it is to ride on any commercial airline and watch the liquor flow and, at the end of the flight, the inebriated stagger down the aisle.

          Besides which, how much is too much? We know that alcohol (even two drinks) takes the edge off of judgment and impairs function. Is drunk driving worse than drunk flying? For that matter, if safety is really uppermost in the thinking of the airlines, is it sensible to serve liquor on planes at all? Yet, in actual dollar volume the airlines and airports are probably the nation's biggest bartender.

          On another topic, the airlines and some of the press often introduce irrelevant comments about how admirable it is that the blind "want to try to be independent" but that the exit row is simply not the place to demonstrate it. This is pure nonsense. Blind persons are either a greater hazard than others seated in exit rows or they aren't. If they are, they shouldn't sit there--and any blind person with any sense wouldn't want to. If they aren't a greater safety hazard than others, then prohibiting them from sitting in the exit row is discrimination--and in either case, admiration and emotion have nothing to do with it.

          So where does this leave us? Never in the history of commercial aviation has there been a single recorded instance of a blind person's blocking an exit, slowing an evacuation or contributing to an accident. But there are recorded instances to the contrary. At night or when the cabin has been filled with smoke, blind persons have on more than one occasion found the exits and led others out.

          Nevertheless, say the airlines, there is a countering situation. What if there is a fire just outside of the exit and the blind person (unable to see it) opens the exit and triggers disaster? This (even though it has never happened) is, of course, theoretically possible--but it is hard to see how such a hypothetical scenario can outweigh the reality of what has actually occurred--the effective performance of blind passengers in dark or smoke-filled cabins, leading others to safety.

          There are also other considerations. How many so-called normal, healthy passengers have undetectable (or hidden) disabilities (bad backs, heart conditions, emotional instability, or the like) which would make it totally inappropriate for them to sit in the exit row? But we always come back to the single issue of fire on the wing or outside the exit. The sighted can see it, and the blind can't--and this, say the airlines, is totally controlling and makes everything else irrelevant. The sighted, they tell us, would be able to function--and would do it. The blind couldn't and wouldn't. To the Federation's argument that the exit row issue is as important and all-encompassing as the refusal by Rosa Parks to sit at the back of the bus (with all that was implied), the airlines tend to answer with a single scare word--"fire!"

          So let us deal with that word. Let us bring fire out of the realm of ghosts in the night and nameless terror and deal with it. What do sighted people actually do when they see fire on the wing? Not what they are thought to do or what they are believed to do, but what do they really do--not in simulations or textbooks, but in real life? What would a blind person (one who did not have the sight of fire to spur his imagination and drive him to frenzy) do? We do not have the answer to both parts of the question, but we do have a definitive answer to half of it. We know what sighted people do--or certainly what they did do in at least one real life situation. As you read the following article by Neil Centennial of the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, reprinted in the September 11, 1990, Seattle Times, ask yourself some questions. Are blind persons who fly less suited than others to sit in exit rows? Are the blind being held to a higher standard than others? In the situation described in the following article, do you think a blind person similarly situated would have been more or less likely to panic than the sighted who were there and participated in the debacle? Remember that we are not talking about just one sighted person, or even a handful. We are talking about dozens and dozens, a whole planeful. Here is the article. Judge for yourself:

Fire! Panic on Runway in a Moving Jet

by Neil Centennial

          The first shout of "fire" came from a passenger sitting by the right wing of the Boeing 727, shortly after TWA Flight 194 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., touched down at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

          Other passengers quickly joined in, yelling and pointing to flames shooting from an auxiliary power unit on the wing as the aircraft taxied toward the terminal Sunday night.

          What happened next caught everyone by surprise: Panicked passengers flung open emergency exits and bailed out. A few jumped from a wing onto the tarmac while the plane was moving, said Passenger Lauren Rubel, 44, a New Yorker with a home west of Boca Raton, Fla.

          The rest of the 134 people on board slid down chutes after the jetliner stopped on the taxiway, airline officials said.

          "People were shouting `Get out of the plane--use the emergency exits,'" Rubel said.

          "Everybody started to scream. Everybody went crazy," said another passenger, John Fontana, 60, who divides his time between his Brooklyn home and his Hallandale, Fla., condominium.

          At least three passengers were injured--none seriously--in the emergency evacuation that occurred shortly after the jet landed, airline and Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

          TWA officials called the evacuation an overreaction on the part of passengers. The flames came from an auxiliary power unit that backfired, they said.

          As the plane was landing, the control tower told the pilot there was a fire on the wing, and he shut down the power unit, FAA officials said. The flight crew did not order passengers to go out the emergency exits, the officials said.

          "The passengers thought there was a fire, and they overreacted," TWA spokesman Jim Faulkner said from St. Louis. "The captain did try to communicate to them it was not a fire, but they had already headed for the doors."

          FAA officials said it was highly unusual for passengers to evacuate while a plane is moving and without a flight crew instructing them to do so.

          FAA investigators were checking the jet's auxiliary power unit, which supplies electricity for air conditioning, lights, and other onboard systems when the engine is shut off. The team also will interview the flight crew, FAA spokesman Duncan Pardue said.

          "I can't remember an episode like this, frankly, where passenger panic brought about an evacuation" instead of evacuation being ordered by a crew member, he said.

          Amid the initial confusion, passengers looking for flight attendants to help them could not find any, said Rubel, a retired shoe store owner who jumped from the left wing with her husband, Robert, 55, after the plane had stopped.

          "We were shouting, `What should we do?'" she said.

          Pardue said flight attendants are "trained to be there instructing the (passengers) on how to get off." He said the FAA was investigating "why all this happened, why the flight attendants couldn't contain the passengers."

          Passengers said the captain left the cockpit briefly to tell passengers to sit down and not to panic. But "the people didn't give a damn anymore," Fontana said.

          Just after the plane landed, Robert Rubel said, he heard a shout of fire then saw a "big ball or flash of red outside the plane." A young woman sitting in a row in front of him bolted out of her seat, opened an emergency door, and darted onto the wing, he said.

          A wave of "organized panic" then took over as other passengers left the plane, most of them sliding down four emergency chutes that were deployed, Lauren Rubel said.

          Before leaping from the wing, Lauren Rubel said she tossed her dog, a Maltese named Tiger, into her husband's arms. Then she, too, jumped into his arms.

          Immediately after the evacuation, two passengers were taken to Elmhurst General Hospital, one with leg pains and one with a possible heart problem, and one was taken to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police said.

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