Did you hear about the recent United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver that was diverted for an unscheduled landing in Chicago after two passengers got into an altercation over a reclining seat? The fight started when The Man in Row 12 connected a gadget called the Knee Defender to his tray table to prevent the woman in front of him from reclining. She did not take kindly to this, so the flight attendant asked the man to remove the device. (United Airlines prohibits its use.) According to initial news reports, he refused. The man subsequently said that he did comply, but the woman then reclined her seat so violently that he reacted by pushing her seat back hard to reinstall his device. Upon which The Woman in Row 11 threw a cup of water at the man. Oh dear. I was on her side until then. So the flight made an unscheduled stop in Chicago and the miscreants were escorted off. The plane then continued to Denver, arriving nearly two hours late, in all likelihood causing a cascade of inconvenience and expense for many passengers. How rude!
I think we can all agree that flying can be stressful. Bouncing through bad weather has a way of making people think they’re going to miss their connection, hurl their lunch, or die. Throw in pervy pat-downs, sardine-like seating, screaming babies, smokers on edge, armrest hogs, jet lag, bad food, body odor, sweat pants, tank tops, and people with four carry-ons, and you’ve got ideal conditions for a manners meltdown.
Nonetheless, misery is never an excuse for rudeness. So let’s dissect this airborne altercation to identify the manners violations. First, it was out of line for the man to install the Knee Defender (or Personal Space Protector or Laptop Lookout or whatever lofty name you want to give it to mask its hostile, entitled intent). He does not have the right to unilaterally restrict the comfort and range of motion another passenger expects and has paid for. Otherwise, what’s next? Placing duct tape over someone’s reading light because it’s in your eyes? Nailing down someone’s window shade to cut glare on your DVD player? Throwing out your neighbor’s lunch because you don’t like pepperoni pizza?
So, Round One goes to The Woman in Row 11 whose seat was tampered with to prevent its reclining. It appears that her next step was to notify the flight attendant—so far so good—who asked The Man in Row 12 to remove the device. He says he did. At this point, The Women in Row 11 was clearly in the lead. But if she then reclined her seat as violently as the man reports, nearly breaking his laptop, and then he pushed back, and then she threw a cup of water at him, well, "who started it" tends to fade into the background. So the two of them ended up ejected from the game, er, plane.
Restricting the movement of the seat back in front of you? Rude!
Throwing a cup of water at the man who did it? Ruder!
Causing delay and extra expense for innocent fellow passengers? Rudest!
Online aficionados know that it is at this point in the debate that the public weighs in with thoughtful, tolerant, solution-oriented comments. Here’s a sampling of a few of the milder ones:
“I will grab your laptop and smack you in the head for being such a jerk.”
“If I'm going to be uncomfortable because you want to recline, you're going to be
uncomfortable because you get two knees jabbed into your back the whole time.”
“Go ahead and stick your little plastic toy on my seat. You'll have a delightful trip as I
bang into the back of my seat as hard as I can for as long as it takes. We'll find out what
gives out first: your gadget, your laptop screen, your drink, or your sanity. “
In the midst of all this head-smacking, knee-gouging, drink-spilling vituperation, someone invariably makes an analogy to obese people who have to buy two seats if they are unable to fit into one; therefore, the reasoning goes, tall people should expect to purchase the seat in front of them or a first-class ticket if they wish to have room for their long legs. This inevitably leads to the assertion that tall people can’t help their height (and, therefore, should not have to pay extra for comfort), whereas fat people are simply making poor life choices and can voluntarily eat kale and become svelte whenever the spirit moves them (and, therefore, should be financially penalized for their self-destructive, other-inconveniencing indolence). And, faster than you can say “the seat belt sign is on,” these debates quickly devolve into nasty digital duke-outs of inflammatory comments about politics, gender, immigration, sexual orientation, Muslims, women, religion, Obama, and the Second Amendment.
Oh, people, can’t we calm down?
Let’s look for areas of agreement.
1) The steady erosion of comfort on airplanes has led to increased tension and decreased legroom. Since this is not the fault of passengers, let’s unite over mutual condemnation of the airlines.
2) The Geneva Convention never determined who owns the wedge of triangulated airspace described by the arc of a reclining seat back—the occupant of said seat, or the person whose knees are intruded upon. I would maintain, since the recline button is at the seat occupant’s fingertips, that he or she is in the command and control position. One could make the argument, however, that the airline is inviting seat battles by essentially selling the same space to two passengers—the one in front who expects to be able to recline her seat, and the one right behind her who expects to have space for his legs and laptop.
3) A seat back, especially when violently reclined without warning, can cause pain, breakage, spillage, encumbrance, and inconvenience to the person or belongings in its path. At a minimum, seats should be reclined slowly and in stages.
Therefore, be it resolved that any progress in this arena can only be achieved in the following manner:
Airlines need to announce that devices restricting the movement of seats are not allowed.
Passengers need to increase their levels of empathy, consideration, and compromise. (Yes, you may say “Fat chance,” but really, doesn’t the maintenance of a civil society usually come down to those three concepts?) To help this along, here are some phrases passengers can use to minimize the likelihood of fisticuffs in the fuselage:
“Would you mind if I recline my seat?”
“I’d like go to sleep. I hope it won’t inconvenience you if I recline my seat.”
“Do you think you could wait to recline until I’ve finished my meal?”
“Would it be possible for you to recline just partway so I can use my laptop?”
“I have long legs and my knees are right up against your seat back. Could you please let me know if you’re going to recline so I can keep from being injured?”
Idealistic? Perhaps. But let’s look for the best in human nature, rather than the worst. Chances are your polite request or caution will be responded to in kind, resulting in a more moderate angle of recline, or none at all. And if problems persist, you can still ask the flight attendant to help you find a resolution or different seat.
In the meantime, I have a suggestion for the airlines in the spirit of current policies and economics: Seat Comfort Auctions. We know the industry is heading towards Standing Room Only flights where passengers strap into vertical positions with tiny butt-rest shelves. Beverages, for a fee, will be available via drop-down tubes. Other tubes, also for a fee, will be available for restroom functions.
But until seats are eliminated, the airlines should stage pre-flight electronic auctions in which passengers compete for comfort with their neighbors by bidding to control armrests, window shades, seat backs, reading lamps, frequency of aisle access, contiguous passenger size, etc. Here’s how an online airline auction would work:
“I have an opening bid of $10 from 33D to recline.”
“Do I hear $15 from 34D? Fifteen to decline recline?”
“Fifteen dollars. Recline blocked. Do I hear $20? Twenty to restore?”
“Twenty dollars. Recline restored.”
“Twenty-five to block. This is a steal. Full knee-cartilage comfort. Going… going… $25!
Recline blocked by 34D for $25.”
“Thirty dollars to you, 33D. Can you endure six hours of back pain? Only $30 for four
sweet inches of sway that’ll have you sleeping like a baby.”
“33D? Do I hear $30? Going… going… sold to 34D for $25. Recline blocked. Knees
“Our next lot will muzzle the compulsive talker in 34E. We’ll start the bidding at $50.”
Between mutual passenger courtesy and Seat Comfort Auctions, the battle over reclining seats should be resolvable. But please, God, don't let the airlines allow cell phone use in flight.