The USAir emergency exit row seating card reads, “Please contact a USAir Express crewmember if you are not able to read, speak, or understand English.” That’s because the airline won’t let non-English-speaking passengers sit in the emergency exit row, and it requires all passengers who want to sit there to acknowledge that they’re qualified to do so verbally, in English.
Whether USAir’s English-only rule for exit row seating is a safety precaution or an attempt to get travelers to embrace English as the language of upward mobility and extra leg room, that first sentence on the seating card is useless: anyone who can’t read English won’t know they have to report this handicap to the flight attendant.
It also turns out the USAir's English-only requirement goes beyond federal rules for exit-row seating. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates English as the language of flight control, but not for exit row seating. FAA rules state that passengers must be over 15 to sit in an exit row. They must be both willing and physically able to open the exit door and assist in an evacuation. And they must be able to read the language of the instruction card, though the language on that card is nowhere specified as English.
Airline personnel decide who is qualified to sit in an exit row, but the FAA says that they must make that decision “in a non-discriminatory manner.” Basing that decision on the ability to read English could be discriminatory. Perhaps a knowledge of English can help you get out of a 747 under water, upside down, but the government says that you can sit in an exit row even if you can’t read the card in English or Spanish or Japanese as long as you can interpret the graphics that show how to open the emergency exit.
Passengers in exit rows must also be able to understand oral crew commands, and so a knowledge of the crew’s language is also required by the FAA, though once again the agency doesn’t specify that language as English.
When it comes to exit-row English, not all airlines are as strict as USAir. Southwest prints its emergency exit cards in English and Spanish, and international carriers often print the card in multiple languages. American Airlines doesn’t specify an exit-row language, though flight attendants may ask passengers, “Are you limited in your ability to read and understand printed/graphic instructions related to exists [sic], an aircraft evacuation or the ability to understand crew members commands?” And Japan Airlines’ instructions to passengers say that you can sit in an exit row if you “can understand evacuation procedures and crew's instructions, and verbally convey such information to other passengers.” On the other hand, JetBlue goes beyond both the FAA’s rules and those of USAir, requiring exit-row passengers not just to read and understand English, but also to be able to “give instructions in English” (emphasis added), though JetBlue doesn’t say what instructions exit-row passengers are supposed to give the other passengers.
Southwest Airlines’ exit-row seating card is printed in English and Spanish.
Because time is of the essence in an emergency, and because passengers speak a great variety of languages, many airlines elect to use pictures, not words, for passenger safety instructions, and that’s why the FAA specifies that passengers in the exit rows must be able either to read the emergency instructions or to understand the pictures showing how to open the emergency exit. I always have trouble figuring out the simple arrow graphics on the buttons that open and close elevator doors, and in my haste to help someone with a lot of packages, suitcases, and children in tow who is trying to get into the car as the doors are closing, I invariably press > < instead of < >, which turns out to be less than helpful, if the way that person looks at me as the doors shut even faster is any indicator. Flying is a lot more stressful than riding an elevator, so if exit-row passengers are anything like me, they won’t be able to follow those picture-worth-a-thousand-word exit-row instructions in the event of an emergency.
Understanding the graphics may be more important in air travel than understanding printed words, which is why emergency cards often prefer cartoon or diagram to text, as shown in the two cards above.
That there is an exit row emergency card may make travelers feel more secure, and one frequent traveler I know gave this opinion of USAir’s English-only exit-row rule: “I should hope so.” But to be honest, in the event of an unscheduled descent, those seated in the exit row, assuming they’ve survived the crash, won’t have time to read an instruction card no matter what language it’s in, or figure out what the cartoon is trying to tell them, no matter how obvious its message was to the artist who drew it or the airline that commissioned it.