TO RECLINE OR NOT TO RECLINE: What Are Your Feelings On Air Travel Etiquette?

Three flights in eight days have been diverted because of passenger battles over reclining seats. Because flying is normally such a pleasant and relaxing experience?
Publish date:
September 4, 2014
rudeness, etiquette, flying

You may have heard that the hip new thing to do on airplanes is have a seat-reclining freakout that causes your plane to be diverted and possibly you yourself to be arrested.

In the past eight days, three flights have made “unscheduled landings” (which is not, as it might seem, friendly jargon for “crashing,” but instead just landing at a different airport than originally intended). In August, a guy on a United flight used something called a “Knee Defender” to prevent the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. You can’t make this up. The device in question is a piece of plastic that clamps onto the tray table and mechanically subverts reclining efforts. It is also banned on many airlines, because what the hell, dude? The seats recline. It’s part of their function. You don't get to dismantle the smoke detector in the lav so you can have a cigarette, what makes you think airlines will be cool with you messing with their seats?

Anyway, a flight attendant asked the gentleman in question to remove the Defender and allow his knees to be subject to attack, and he refused. So the woman in the row in front poured her water on him. Because we're all adults here, am I right?

Next was an American flight from Miami to Paris, in which two flyers likewise battled over a seatback angle and the flight had to land in Boston.

Lastly, on Monday a Delta flight headed to West Palm Beach (WHY IS IT ALWAYS FLORIDA) from New York had to land in Jacksonville, when a passenger reclined a seat into the head of a woman resting same on her tray table and she freaked out. And, I mean, not to be totally unsympathetic, but a) how was the person in front of you supposed to know your head was there? and b) IF YOU HAVE ENOUGH ROOM TO COMFORTABLY REST YOUR HEAD ON YOUR TRAY TABLE YOU REALLY DON’T HAVE REASON TO COMPLAIN ABOUT A RECLINED SEAT. I mean, this is just my too-big-to-put-my-head-down opinion, but damn. I'd love to have sufficient freedom of movement to put my head on the tray table.

Passenger tempers have been flaring for a long time, although diverting the plane to a different airport is relatively new -- maybe pilots are just as irritated as the rest of us. With shrinking seat and row sizes and the utter misery that is passage through airport security, by the time people get on a plane, they’re usually already annoyed and the flight hasn’t even begun yet.

My husband was flying home from a business trip over the weekend, taking a redeye (i.e. an overnight west-to-east cross-country flight). As he texted a bleary me at 2 a.m. local time to tell me he'd successfully boarded, he mentioned that a man had already made a scene while loading his bags in the overheard bin. Apparently unhappy with the way his predecessor had stocked the compartment, the agitator loudly complained while roughly shoving other people's bags around, until the owner of said bags stood up, and they traded a few barbs.

And I'm thinking, "It's a redeye. It is a terrible experience in the best of circumstances. You're going to be stuck on a flight for six and a half hours, hours that you would normally be sleeping in a cozy bed. Why begin the flight with a battle and set that tone for the whole trip?"

The closest I've ever come to flipping out on a plane was also redeye- and overhead-compartment-related. I had boarded promptly when called, and placed my roll-aboard suitcase in the bin -- wheels out, as always, and I closed the bin for a moment just to make sure it fit. (I fly a LOT, so I know the score.) Assured that all was in order, I took my window seat and waited as the rest of the flight boarded.

At the last minute, two breathless people boarded with two large bags, at which point there was little overhead space left. A flight attendant quickly began rearranging the overhead bins to try to make room for their bags. When she was done, somehow, she was still holding my bag, and there was no longer any room for it.

"WHOSE BAG IS THIS?" She barked. When I raised my hand, she said I would have to gate check it. A million stories of lost gate-checked bags flew through my mind. This is why I get to the airport so absurdly early, I thought. This is why I board immediately when called! I AM A GOOD FLYER! I DID EVERYTHING RIGHT! THE LATE PEOPLE WHO ARE BAD FLYERS SHOULD HAVE THEIR BAGS CHECKED!

But my fear of flight attendant reprisal is greater than my sense of passenger justice, so I meekly squeaked out, “But, I boarded first… and it fit before…. I checked…” I probably sounded like Piglet.

The flight attendant did. not. care. “It doesn’t fit now,” she asserted, chucking my bag at the gate agent and handing the check stub to the person at the end of my row to hand down to me.

I mean, it was 11:30 at night, and I was exhausted from a very long day and dreading this horrible overnight travel, but -- I sat in my seat and boiled with rage and CRIED (from the adrenaline, I guess). I’m embarrassed to admit it. I tried not to. I felt like a big whiny baby, and, as I told myself, it’s just a damn bag. People are being murdered in other parts of the world, right now! Would you rather have your bag gate-checked or be MURDERED, Lesley?

I didn’t fight the flight attendant on it, though. I’m not really a confrontational person. I rely on my ability to draw on common ground and defuse antagonism and acrimony even with people who are dead set on being rude or dismissive to me. It’s not my nature to get all aggressive back. Still, I wondered, if I’d been confrontational, and thrown a fit, would I have won?

The truth is, I have been beaten down by air travel. As soon as I board a plane, my spirit is immediately broken. I want to be as invisible as possible. Flying sucks.* It’s uncomfortable even for people who are small, and nearly unbearable for people who aren’t. A part of me understands the guy with his Knee Defender. But why take that discomfort-induced rage out on a fellow passenger and not the airline that put the seats so close together in the first place? Why didn’t Knee Defender just explain to his flying peer that putting her seat back all the way was doing harm to his legs, and could they come to some kind of amenable compromise? Taking the passive aggressive gadget route assumes that the passenger in question must be unreasonable before even making an effort to communicate. It also means the airlines that are basically seeing how far they can push passenger discomfort before it results in outright mutiny get to win, because we’re turning on each other instead of demanding better accommodations.

And, I mean, it should go without saying that 99% of the time, seat-reclination is not a personal slight against you. Even as it seems many people are taking it as such.

It's a shame, really, because air travel is magical. A bunch of humans get packed in a metal cylinder and are then flung both several kilometers up into the sky AND across long distances at 500 mph, and this has become so commonplace that we are all just super annoyed by the process.

Do you have strong feelings on seat-reclining? What are your air-travel etiquette pet peeves? Myself, I pay extra for seats with more room, and I gently recline my seat about halfway, figuring this is a reasonable compromise, with two exceptions: if the person behind me is very large or tall, or explicitly asks me not to. Or, if they're a child with short kicking legs.


* Unless you’re in first class. I’m not one for ostentatious displays of wealth but damn straight if I ever become a zillionaire I am flying first class everywhere I go.