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Aviation: Passengers sitting on the floor

The UK national press recently got rather excitable over three passengers who apparently were required to sit on the floor of an aircraft because the seats they were allocated on a flight were not installed. The story in the Daily Mail goes like this:

A family arrived early at Mahon Airport for a flight to Birmingham and were allocated seats 41D, 41E and 41F in the last row of a Boeing 757. Upon boarding they found the seats were missing and instead there was an empty space against the rear bulkhead. As an alternative to offloading the passengers, the crew offered the last remaining seat in the cabin to the family’s 10 year old child while the two adults were accommodated on fold-down jumpseats often used by cabin crew as the 757 has more jumpseats than are needed by the staff. After takeoff the area around the jumpseats was needed for the trolleys used for inflight food and beverage service, so the passengers were asked to move. They sat on the floor along with their child. Prior to landing, the travellers reoccupied the jumpseats.

Operational necessity

There are reasons why situations like this arise very occasionally. Usually they result from a set of three seats being damaged or being faulty. If there are no spares at the airport, the need to keep flights running dictates the aircraft departs with fewer seats than normal. Furthermore, some airlines operate similar aircraft with varying seat capacities to cater to different markets, but may have to juggle their fleet when breakdowns occur. When operational changes are necessary an airline will do its best to ensure disruption affects as few customers as possible and only very rarely does the removal of three seats cause a problem for passengers. And when it does, an airline will usually do its upmost to ensure customers are accommodated in the the least disruptive manner possible: often that involves swapping them to another flight and offering delay compensation.

TUI Airways Boeing 757s typically have 221 seats. (Tony Hisgett)

In this case it seems that TUI Airways staff elected to offer three passengers the one empty passenger seat and two jump seats - probably as a means of getting them home expeditiously. The alternatively would likely have involved rebooking and accommodating the family in a hotel in the interim period. Its possible the airline gave its customers a choice. It's likely to have been done with the best intentions - staff would believe they were doing the passengers a favour by enabling them to return home as planned.

Legalities

The rules covering commercial aviation are laid down by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and every airline in the EU has to comply with them. Many firms also apply more stringent guidelines in their operations manuals, which also have to be complied with once approved by the authorities. Reviewing the EASA regulations, it is apparent that TUI Airways complied with the law and that claims the airline fell short of its legal obligations are a little misguided.

  • Everyone on board an aircraft has to be seated whenever the seatbelts signs are illuminated. EASA regulation: Before take-off land landing, and during taxiing,