WASHINGTON -- Federal rules taking effect today will restrict airline seats near exits to people in good physical condition who speak and read English and are otherwise able to help evacuate the plane in an emergency.
Airline officials said they would be asking some of these passengers boarding aircraft whether they would be willing to help evacuate the plane in an accident.
People who agree to sit in an exit row generally will be treated no differently than are other passengers and will be allowed, for example, to consume alcohol and to sleep.
But many airlines plan to put their own employees, who may travel free of charge on business or personal trips, in the seats between the exit and the nearest aisle because they often have special safety training.
When it proposed the rules, the Federal Aviation Administration cited a number of studies of previous crashes in which some but not all passengers died during evacuation of the plane.
While there were "some reports of successful, rapid evacuation by persons with disabilities," the FAA said, "the reports show rather dramatically that certain factors generally impede rapid evacuation -- advanced age or extreme youth, parental responsibilities for minors, physical disabilities, obesity, injury or ill health."
For several months airlines have been phasing in the new rules.
Most of the airlines are not assigning the restricted seats to passengers in advance. At the airport, people are assigned to the seats after being screened to make sure they meet the criteria for sitting in exit rows.
That means, among other things, that the passengers are not blind, deaf, obese, pregnant, frail or under 16 years of age.
The number of exits on an airplane, and the number of seats near each exit, depends on the model of the plane. The only rule that now governs the number of exits is one requiring that in a monitored test the plane can be evacuated in 90 seconds.
Under the rules, passengers must be able to do several things if they are to sit in exit rows. They must be able to hear safety instructions, see through windows to check conditions outside, see and obey hand signals, shout to other passengers and move easily and quickly through the exits.