As personal space on planes continues to shrink, eyes are falling on the last place where you can still enjoy a small amount of dignity: the emergency exit row. The rows leading to the “overwing” emergency exits usually still have the humane 36 inches (91cm) of space necessary for quick egress during an evacuation. They also are often occupied by experienced air travellers who mind their own business. If you’re not in a special class or in one of the bulkhead seats – those in the first row of the cabin, which also have more legroom – the emergency exit row is the next best place to sit. But, as many air travellers are discovering, these coveted seats come with their own rules – and not just the written ones laid out in the Code of Federal Regulations and clearly disclosed when you get the seat assignment. There are unwritten rules, too, which can trip up even experienced passengers. Let’s start with the written rules. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has numerous regulations that govern who can, and cannot, sit in an emergency exit row. You must be at least 15 years old. You must have sufficient mobility and strength and dexterity in both arms, hands and legs to assist in an evacuation. Possible duties include operating the emergency exit and slide mechanisms, and removing obstacles between you and the emergency exit. You must be able to hear and see well enough to help during an evacuation. Most important, you must understand the crew’s instructions and be able to follow them. In other words, the FAA considers emergency row seating a safety issue. Unfortunately, the airlines, in their efforts to monetise everything on the plane, have designated the exit row seats as “premium” because of the extra legroom. Most economy class seats have only between 30 and 32 inches of “pitch” – an industry term for the distance between rows – and air carriers figured correctly that passengers would be willing to pay more for the exit row. The result is that they’ve blurred an important line between safety and amenity. To further complicate things, whether a person belongs in the exit row is largely a matter of self-assessment. Flight attendants do not have the time to test your strength, vision, hearing and comprehension before the flight, so they rely on you to evaluate yourself. “People often opt to pay for the emergency exit row but are not capable of operating the exit,” says Brett Manders, an international airline pilot and author of the book Behind the Flight Deck Door . Still, they believe that because they have paid for the seats, they should be able to sit in them. 5 reasons why Emirates’ London flight is the height of luxury Emergency exit door weights vary, according to the FAA. While some can weigh 45 pounds (20.4kg), others, such as those on an Airbus A320, weigh only 32 pounds. Almost all the Boeing 737’s emergency doors open automatically, so there is no need to lift anything. Besides whether you can help in an emergency, there are other things to consider about exit rows, according to Manders and others. On some international flights, for example, you must stow your luggage in the overhead compartment instead of under your seat. Also, the seats in front of the exit row generally do not recline. Now for the unwritten rules: several frequent air travellers tell me that although airlines will serve alcohol to passengers in the exit row, it is considered good etiquette to abstain. After all, even the most capable passenger can be incapacitated by one drink too many, which could put lives at risk. They also note that it’s unwise to sleep in the emergency exit row. Because, well, it’s the emergency exit row. Another unwritten no-no: XL fliers. Frequent traveller Thomas Snitch recalls a recent flight from Washington to San Diego, California. “There was a gentleman in the exit row window seat,” he says. “He weighed about 400 pounds. The issue was raised with the flight attendant, who asked him, ‘Can you help in an emergency?’ He said, ‘Yes, and I am not moving’.” Snitch doubts the passenger could have helped during an evacuation and believes the attendant should have moved him. But in a way, you cannot blame the passenger for coveting the exit row. After all, there is a reasonable amount of legroom with the seats. Who wouldn’t want to be there? The best airlines for overweight or obese travellers – ones with the widest economy seats If you worry about forgetting some of the rules, you might take comfort from this: airlines love to seat “deadheading” crew members – who are travelling between airports for work – in the exit rows. If that is the case, there will be someone to ensure that you observe exit row etiquette. It would be easy to remedy the exit row safety situation. Airlines could just move the rest of the seats in economy class farther apart, to 36 inches of pitch, taking away the incentive to sit in critical exit row seats. If that is not feasible, then they should at least stop charging extra for sitting in them. Being asked to pay a premium for the exit row gives travellers the impression that it is a privilege. But it’s not – it’s also a responsibility.