Why can’t I sit in the exit row flying where they speak English?

Last week the banks; this week the airlines.

Copa was my beloved carrier. Free alcohol and warm food. Plus, the antidote to connecting through Miami before the American Airlines terminal immigration hall introduced passport-reading machines. Walk off the plane at Tocumen Airport, Panama City’s Hub of the Americas, stroll to another gate, duty-free bottles in hand, for a Latin-American connection less than an hour later. Earn miles on United—I gained elite status. I loved supporting a regional carrier, too.

Now the opposite is true of me and my ex-airline. Twice now, Copa’s refused to board travellers from my NGO flying to regional conferences, citing documentation glitches, then after the issue was resolved the same day, tried to gouge huge penalties to put them on another flight. Last year the company couldn’t find a visa waiver advisory the Organization of American States issued the airline for a young traveller to its Paraguay General Assembly meeting. The airline’s Asunción post failed to transmit the information so Port of Spain could see it. At Piarco, priority was boarding the flight, not looking for the documentation. A few international calls at our expense sorted things out—after the flight had left without him. Copa offered him another seat that would get him there days later, at the end of the meeting. To fly him earlier, desk agents demanded US$650.

Things seemed pretty straightforward—pay the fee, make sure the young man got to represent his country, airline management would overrule the fourth-to-last-in-the-world-for-customer-service natives in POS, and we’d get a refund, at least a credit. A year of Panama’s inaction on our e-mails later, it was a local agent who took up our case and got a response from corporate. Far from what we expected, they sent the organization no remuneration, offering the young man a non-transferrable voucher that couldn’t buy a ticket from here to anywhere.

Last month it was yellow fever. And another $650. This time we didn’t fly. The handwritten green-cardboard certificate the Diego Martin Health Centre issued me that has worked for every other airline and immigration authority for years didn’t pass muster with Copa. I pleaded uselessly to gate managers, who refused to board me, and had me take the card to another public health office in Belmont where they handcopied the Diego Martin certificate onto another piece of green cardboard, put their stamp instead, and handed it back to me with the instruction to write in my passport number myself.

Then this week: it was the emergency exit row! Miami’s legendary lines have vanished, Copa’s left United’s frequent flyer programme, and I’m now an as-infrequent-as-possible Copa flyer, but the non-profit that bought the yellow-fever ticket used its residual value to fly me somewhere else. On the last flight back home, the flight attendant, whose Spanish-language orientation about emergency-row seating I understood perfectly, nonetheless profiled me as non-Spanish-speaking, asked if I did, I admitted I wasn’t fluent, and she had me re-seated.

I wanted to burst into that song from Derek Walcott’s Joker of Seville, but felt sure no one would join me.

El capitán was a quaking wreck,
el first mate buy borracho,
los crew, who staggered round the deck
didn’t know arse from elbow.
El cargo was a reeking lot of
Negroes, coon and bimbo,
who screamed the blues, when they were not up
practicando el limbo.
But they said when we said ‘It’s more to
us like cries of anguish’:
‘Thees ees a Spaneesh sheep, señor,
and they do not scream Spanish!’

Airlines have recently begun enforcing, in a new way, what I used to call the able-bodied-English-speaking-over-18 rule—that to sit in an exit row, you have to be able, in case of an emergency, to understand and comply with the instructions of the flight crew. Here’s the logic: on a US carrier flying out of Port of Spain, a quite elderly woman who spoke only Hindi might not know what the crew were telling her to do, or be able to operate the latch that opens the exit door. But for Panamanian Copa, it’s Spanish you’re required to speak.

Now I hope to God Copa doesn’t devolve into screaming Spanish only during in-flight emergencies—at least not while flying to and from destinations where the official language is English. Paying Trinbagonian customers flying in and out of Piarco, who speak Hindi and Creole, but perhaps understand English, ought to understand their entire crew in an emergency. English can’t only be for asking if I want a beef or chicken hotpocket. The emergency card is in English, Spanish and pictographs; and the exit row instructions in Portuguese too. But Copa’s application of the exit-row rule suggests only those who speak Spanish will leeve.

It seems to me the real safety rule on all POS flights ought to be that the entire flight crew must be able to communicate in English with passengers in the heat of an emergency, including those in the exit row—and understand their screams. And I ought to be able to sit in Row 17.

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