Blame added seats for conflict among airline passengers

Ever wonder if you’re an involuntary subject in a sociological experiment?

Ask yourself that question the next time you’re on an airliner and the internal debate begins: “Should I recline? I paid for this seat; don’t I have the right? But can I recline without angering the person behind me? How far can I recline without sparking an incident that gets the plane turned around?”

This silent debate continues, until the passenger in front of you reclines his seat and all concern for consequence and fellow passengers goes in the air-sickness bag as the seatbacks fall like a line of dominos.

A United Airlines flight was diverted last week between Newark, New Jersey, and Denver, when a female passenger threw water on a male passenger who had refused to remove a device called The Knee Defender, which prevented the woman from reclining her seat. Both were left off in Chicago to continue their journeys, presumably on separate planes. Another scuffle between passengers over the recline button occurred on a flight between Miami and Paris that had to be diverted to Boston.

This is where the airlines’ continued push to maximize profits has brought us as travelers. As airlines add more seats to planes, legroom decreases and the likelihood of conflict among passengers increases. Looking for affordable travel, airline passengers have grown accustomed to accepting or declining the addition of fee upon fee above the basic cost of an economy seat and now must cope with an ever-shrinking allocation of personal space. The airlines even have a name for it: “densification.” But our ire as passengers has been misdirected at fellow passengers instead of the airline officials.

The airlines have been less than sympathetic. Without shame, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said, last year: “If you want more legroom, go pay for it at another airline.”

Baldanza’s “Let them buy cake” attitude aside, he’s correct: The flying public is free to fly on any other airline — and probably should — but airlines as a rule now appear to consider the basic comfort of reclining your seat a few inches in coach class to be something you must now negotiate with the passenger behind you.

Absent an airline that comes to its senses and realizes it can treat the majority of its passengers as something more than cargo and still turn a profit, we will continue to see in-flight scuffles among passengers.

And the airlines, to keep the peace and head off costly diverted flights, will simply lock all economy seats in their upright positions. That is, unless you’d like to pay an additional fee for the freedom to recline?

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