Should Passengers Sitting In The Exit Row Be Allowed to Drink Inflight?

During the pandemic several airlines removed alcohol from their coach cabins, so passengers frequently (illegally) brought their own. Others pregamed in the airport. Serving drinks on board is better, since at least a crewmember can choose whether to serve passengers – and hopefully avoid overserving them.

Some passengers, based on where they’re sitting or on their elite status, get free drinks. Southwest Airlines even has several days of the year where everyone on board drinks free.

Someone who flew over the past week and lucked into an exit row seat on Southwest asked me whether it was ok that their seatmate drank while seated there?

  • Passengers in the exit row have to be willing to assist in an emergency
  • But if they’re drinking they may be impaired in their ability to assist

It can be tough to book extra legroom seats on a plane. Airlines charge extra for them and they aren’t always better seats. Some bulkhead seats don’t allow carry on bags at your feet. Some exit row seats have tray tables in the arm rests which takes up space. And where there are two exit rows, the forward one way not recline (so you don’t recline into the space needed for egress).

I have a hard time booking them as a status member on American Airlines if I’m traveling with my family, because I can’t grab exit row seats (so I’m limited to non-exit row extra legroom seats, which are few and far between on some aircraft). That’s because the FAA doesn’t permit anyone under 15 years old to sit in one. They presume that a younger child may not physically be able to open the exit door in an emergency.

But many adults can’t either, especially if they’ve been drinking. There’s no sobriety requirement. At the beginning of the flight you just have to confirm “willing and able” to assist the crew in an emergency. You may be willing and able when the flight starts, but on many airlines exit row seats – as premium coach seats – even come with free cocktails. You may be less able after your third.

So should exit row passengers be allowed to drink inflight?

  • If we take the safety duty seriously, maybe not?
  • But we don’t actually take it that seriously. In an emergency most passengers are all for themselves, take their carry on bags with them, and even film themselves heading down evacuation slides (sometimes with drink in hand)

I view this as not a big deal, but if drinking in the exit row isn’t a big deal then shouldn’t my (sober) daughter be allowed to sit there too?

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. If I were back there in an exit row , any drinking would not prevent me from making a tout-suite exit , and I am disabled .

  2. Whenever I’m sitting in the exit row and they ask me if I’m willing and able I always say “I can’t wait”. Usually gets a chuckle…but not always.

  3. Ideally not. Ideally there should be background checks, medical checks, psychiatric profiling, and training but that is a lot to ask for a rare event.

    It would be good if there were a mockup in a few hub airports and let people try to open the exit. The wing up 737 door exits, I can see how they work but I have no idea if the 737 overwing door plugs are heavy or have sharp edges.

    I have seen flight attendants pick on an Asian man in the exit row and asking if he speaks English. In that case, the man was a fluent speaker and probably a native born American. When I saw that, I raised my hand, waving it, and said to the FA, “I can speak English, I can speak English!” to show equality in case she didn’t ask me that. The FA did not ask the other passengers, who were white or Black.

  4. Much depends on the way the door opens. If you have to lift the door after unlatching it, and put it on the seats in the exit row. Strength is much more important than having full control over your cognitive abilities if you have to lift them. Some over-wing exits open up or out on hinges, and strength is not a huge concern. The exit row passengers should also help catch passengers as they slide off the wing or slide (model dependent), so they can hit the ground running, and avoid a pile-up at the bottom, if you believe the pictures. A taller person will be better able to do that. But, do you write rules which work for all airplane models, or have model-specific rules?

    Gary, I suspect you have gotten blase and haven’t recently read the safety information for the different types of airplanes you travel on, or you would already know this. This is a problem with most exit row passengers. The 737-800/900 open up and have a power assist. The prior 737 models have a door which weight about 18kg/40lbs. The A320 door weighs about 15kg/33lbs. The doors are also large and awkward to lift, and a mini-me would struggle with that.

  5. @ Gary — The issue is not having a drink while sitting in an Exit Row. You briefly touched on the real issue: “…since at least a crewmember can choose whether to serve passengers – and hopefully avoid overserving them.” It is not the serving (more accurately, the *consumption*) of an alcoholic beverage that is the problem. It is the over-serving that leads to over-consumption. And as I have often said, it is unlawful to serve someone who is inebriated.

    You go on to write: “You may be willing and able [to assist in the use of an emergency] when the flight starts, but on many airlines exit row seats – as premium coach seats – even come with free cocktails. You may be less able after your third.” Yes, well, three is over-consumption…even on a flight like LAX-BOS. All that needs to happen is have the airline — not the DOT — set a limit on domestic (U.S.) flights of two drinks maximum per pax. (It’s significantly easier to set this “plane-wide,” rather than “just exit row.”)

  6. A more rational answer would : no drinking if they have been drinking at the airport bar; two drink maximum including airport bar.

  7. Slow day Gary? Seriously? Of course you can drink. I always order one since those are Main Cabin Extra seats and I take anything the airlines gives me.

    For prudes that have a problem with it – you live your life and sorrel me what to do. BTW if we crash I seriously believe whether someone in an exit row had a drink or two is pretty far down the list of things to worry about!

  8. “A more rational answer would : no drinking if they have been drinking at the airport bar; two drink maximum including airport bar.”

    How’s that going to be enforced?

  9. People answering that it’s ok to drink when in charge of the exit door are the same people who think it’s ok to drive after drinking. If you want to sit in the exit row, there should be no drinking.

  10. My version would be you have to blow zero before you get on the plane (includes crew!)
    I would also require a pilots license to graduate high school.
    But then again, I have a strong bias from living too long in Alaska where there are a lot more people licensed to fly, and there is or was a real problem with drinking. Go figure.

  11. The airlines should pay me to sit in an exit row seat. I am large enough to handle the door. I speak, read and write English. I always read the instructions when I am in an exit row and locate all of the necessary parts that can be seen. I don’t drink beer, wine or liquor. I am not a nut. I am willing to be there for everyone’s safety and the minimum flight attendant wage is ok for me. I promise not to block the exit with seat belt extenders.

  12. Considering that some airlines have permitted operating crew to consume limited quantities of alcohol during their flights, why would you have a blanket ban on exit row passengers?

  13. In a “real” emergency, one is going to “sober’ up pretty damn fast.

    Strength is likely going to be more important than cognizant thinking, i.e. tossing slow/reluctant passengers out the door against their will if in the way. Might actually be beneficial to have a buzz on.

    I used to fly WN exclusively, the only “plug” style doors that needed to be thrown out manually are long retired.

    I am concerned however about the auto de-latching / flipping / springing mechanisms still functioning with the surrounding sheet metal crumpled in a crash. We were trained to prop open the doors with a shoe before an off airport landing to prevent them from being jammed shut during a hard landing.

  14. No matter how drunk you are in an emergency you will figure out what to do, not rocket science. Lift the handle and throw the window out. Then get the heck out. I’m sure you will sober up quickly if that ever happens.

  15. Gary- well done on getting people to comment. TO me, it doesn’t matter the BAC of the person in charge during an emergency, just ask people about Winston Churchill.

  16. I’m not at all worried about a drunk in the exit row, most exits will immediately be blocked by some triple seater who thinks they should be first out.

  17. Strangest corporate policy I have seen in my life, but American Airlines gives TWO free drinks to all legal age passengers in an exit row. No free drinks to other regular passengers flying economy.

    As an attorney who has represented a number of major airlines for decades, I can not comprehend the logic behind this policy and would have great difficulty defending it in court.

  18. Alcohol affects people differently. Some of us may be able to chuck a door out the window after 3 drinks. Others may not. Either way, I am not worried — why? Economy is not like First Class where you are often proactively offered refills. You get 1 drink at a time when the cart comes by. On flights long enough to have multiple drink services, they are spaced out long enough where it is impossible to get drunk.

  19. I always get doubles on MCE on AA and multiple times. On the 737 there are only like two rows of MCE that aren’t exit row, so you will find me in an exit row. Let’s be honest if a plane goes down 99% everyone dead anyway. All these righteous peeps on here. Oh one should ever drink… cry me a river.

  20. Since the FAs are the ones serving the alcohol (and presumably not the passengers self-serving), the FAs should be able to make a decision to cut off further pours and/or ask a passenger in the exit row to change seats if their judgment could be impaired during flight. (I’m talking about the passenger’s judgment and not the FAs.)

    BTW, it’s not just the exit rows that are crucial to a swift and safe evacuation—it’s every passenger. So if you are going to ban drinking in the exit rows, then you also need to ban drinking in the aisle and middle seats so that the passengers in the window seats are not blocked from escaping. Therefore, the only people who should be allowed to drink are those in the window seats. If they can’t get out (after the aisle and center passengers have escaped) then that’s on them.

    Also, in case of a water landing, those with unfinished mini bottles of whiskey, bourbon, or cognac should be allowed to take them along to help keep warm. Those left behind in the window seats can keep chugging their last Bailey’s.

  21. Could you not think of a stupider question and post?

    Should emergency exit passengers be allowed to sleep? Can’t have a delay….

    And let’s not get in to the talking coke machines that aren’t physically capable of much anyway.

    Oh, and all you teetotal proselytizers can GFYS.

  22. @Gary – I didn’t realize that your daughter could handle opening the emergency exit door and lifting it away. Props to you. Unfortunately, most small children can’t manage that, hence the rule. Most adults, even with a couple of drinks in them, should be able to open the door.

    Your safety argument is a red herring. It’s patently obvious that if airlines truly cared about rapid emergency passenger disembarkation there would be a whole plethora of changes, including overhead bins that stay locked during emergencies so selfish people can’t try grabbing their belongings at the expense of everyone else’s safety and emergency evacuation tests in 90 seconds would be conducted in much more realistic conditions with smoke, screaming people, bad lighting, lots of handicapped, large, elderly, and disabled passengers. The thing is, none of these changes would make for a situation where a six year old girl would be able to open the emergency door under anything remotely resembling normal conditions.

  23. Should there be an elderly age restriction or an obese passenger restriction for exit row seating?

    I’ve seen some NBA and NFL players who can barely get in and out of their seats due to the cramped nature of seating on some flights, and some of them would probably have more difficulty maneuvering in some exit rows and opening the emergency doors than a typical soccer-playing 13-year old in Japan.

  24. Nope they shouldn’t. In addition, airlines should also strict screen the types of people sitting in exit rows. Couple of weeks ago on a United flight, an old woman who needed extra time to board the plane was sitting in an exit row seat. Gate agent initially stopped her but eventually let her in with the exit row assignment because she was unwilling to move. It was clear that she wouldn’t be physically capable of assisting during an emergency.

  25. It’s all about risk appetite. If you really want the best and most experienced person operating those exit doors in an emergency you would prioritize putting trained aircrew non-revs and off-duty staff in those seats first. On many domestic flights, there is often a handful of commuting airline crew members in passenger seats. Who would be better suited to sit there? Yes, it sucks for the other passengers that like to sit in exit row seats but in an emergency, it would be the best situation. Until airlines have more liquor liability suits filed against them they will continue to let drunk people fly. They should consider breathalyzer testing for some passengers who are suspected of being drunk and maybe even for exit row folks I guess. The way it is now the airlines just leave some loose policy and judgement up to the front like gate and crew staff which isn’t working for them so far.

  26. Some people worried about someone having some drinks in the exit row. What I worry about is;
    1). how many people will try to take their personal belongings along with them down the slide then causing a rip and it deflating.
    2). How many people will be panicked and fight their way through the group. I see those people who run up from the back of the plane before we even get stopped at the gate when there is not an emergency.
    3). How many exit row people who know full well that in case of emergency they will open that door and be the first one out of the door.
    4) I worry about the people in that row who can’t follow basic instructions like don’t crowd around the gate line until your group number is called. Do you think they will take the time to read the instructions on the door and then perform that function.

  27. There should be NO alcohol served on airplanes and at airports ever. Don’t like it? Take the bus, train or walk!

  28. Interesting to think through behavior following an emergency event where a drunk exit row passenger impeded passengers from proper emergency exit procedure. Who takes the liability, the airline or the passenger? Do exit row seated passengers take any liability when choosing to sit in the row should they not be capable of performing the exit row duties in any instance?

    I would imagine it’s airlines preference to have the liability placed on the exit row passenger. Their willingness to serve / sell alcohol to those passengers makes no sense if that is indeed the case.

    From an ethical standpoint, exit row passengers should be prepared for the emergency. I do not drink if in an exit row. I recently traveled with my pregnant wife and we elected to forego exit row seats due to her limitations as well. That said, are we better off taking those seats even with limitations if we can’t assume others will give it the same consideration?

    Fortunate for flyers that emergency exits are incredibly rare. Maybe that’s why the processes aren’t properly aligned.

  29. When the airline pays me to assist in an emergency, then they can have some input on my actions. It is bad enough the seat probably doesn’t recline, and that I have to engage with an FA before departure. If the airline is willing to let anyone with two operable legs sit in the seat, then they have no business controlling their sins.

    John Karl, I don’t see how you pretend to speak for so many people. Get back to your seat in 40E and mind your own business

  30. Age limit? Yes!
    Drunk? No!
    Common sense from both crew and passenger? Yes!
    I had a family on my flight at the exit row – the son was in his 20s but special needs age was 10. No easy fix. I had a passenger in the next row switch for takeoff and landing ( when most emergencies occur). The family was a bit upset – but the rest of the people appreciated that I cared.

    Nothing is black and white..

  31. I agree with Pete. It seems from the comments the drinkers think they have more ability than they really do. Look at the auto accidents, driving all over the place, driving wrong way on freeways, I’m sure all these idiots think they are capable. But their judgement is not there. Or else they would not be any auto accidents caused by drinking. Lots more people would be alive if they didn’t drink and drive.

  32. mark Johnson – Attacking people in the way you do is simply rude. Telling people not to speak because they disagree with you is bullying. But I do feel I somehow must have touched a nerve, but that is something for you to work out, not me. Also, your 40E joke is immature.

  33. Maybe don’t crash the plane before you start fretting over people drinking in the exit row. I would be far more concerned about a fat person clogging the aisle during an emergency evacuation. And why stop there? I had a flight turn back a few years ago because a guy who had recently had open-heart surgery started feeling unwell. Just because you can fly doesn’t mean you should.

  34. By that logic anyone seated in an exit row should also have to prove they are physically capable of both opening the door and assisting.

    I’d much rather have a fit 30 year old who’s had 2 beers than a 60 year old who is out of shape.

    And of course you’d need to make sure the person didn’t drink before the flight, so breathalyzer tests would need to be mandatory. I also don’t want someone who is on drugs, including certain legal ones that cause impaired function so a drug test no more than 24 hours old would be important.

    In fact, how can you really rely on the general public to remain calm in an emergency? So instead of an “exit row” it should be an exit seat manned by an employee who has been trained to properly evacuate the plane.

    If you want safety above all else then these are not hyperbole but a natural conclusion to reach when considering rules regarding an exit row.

  35. Walter and Pete – SAD!

    Three drinks on a cross-country flight is called just getting started!! Lol

    And for all of you pearl clutching crybabies, I Uber everywhere so spare me the DUI crap!

  36. If I can get one of those 500 pounders out the door, someone better be buying me more than one drink…

  37. I’m more concerned with the people that don’t know they are sitting in the emergency exit row. Or when the flight attendant gives the FAA speech and asks for a verbal confirmation people have no idea what they said.

  38. I would rather have a passenger with a few drinks in than a person well over their BMI! On a recent flight, a late arriving passenger was placed in the middle seat of the exit row. Her thigh was as big as my waist. I don’t know how she fit in the seat, but no one was getting past her in an emergency! I know this is not PC but I found it to be a dangerous situation.

Comments are closed.