Recline That Seat and I'll Strangle You!

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Airline travel and everything associated with it has a way of bringing out the worst in people.  And now that the airlines have reduced seat pitch to that of a Roman slave galley, we've entered the era of the cabin brawl. In case you didn't hear about it, a United flight from Newark to Denver diverted to Chicago Sunday when two passengers got into a spat over whether a seat should be reclined or not. Wow. Couldn't they, like, reseat them in other parts of the cabin? Maybe it's not fair to second guess the skipper, but I'm just sayin'.

The argument erupted when one passenger used a device called a Knee Defender, which attaches to the tray table and prevents the seat in front from reclining. That this is an explosive, emotional issue will be obvious if you read some of the reporting and commentary on the subject. In this recent posting on Time's website, an author defending the Defender allows as how he's thinking he'll come over the top of the seat and strangle any person who reclines into his knee space. Seriously? He also blames the airlines for this predicament, but he really ought to look in the mirror.

You can express your own view below, but mine is that using the Knee Defender is a hostile act. It's like resorting to automatic weapons in a game of checkers. It invites just the sort of altercation that got both passengers tossed on Sunday. Evidently, the person being reclined into roughly shoved the seat forward once or twice and threatened the passenger doing the reclining. He got a drink in the face in response. I can just imagine the poor flight attendant. "You kids cut that out! Don't make me come back there." Really. Seriously.

What to do then? At least two airlines have removed the reclining apparatus and that's certainly one solution. Spirit is one. I don't fly Spirit because they've managed to make what's a fairly miserable experience even worse by tacking on a dizzying list of fees and locking the seats in what's already the industry's stingiest seat pitch--28 inches, compared to United's 31, which is itself on the low end of the scale. I'm willing to pay more to avoid being treated like that, thanks. In other words, I'm making a choice. Having the seat recline is just one tiny vestige of comfort and civility in an industry that increasingly offers less and less for more and more.

But the six-footer stuffed into the same pitch that I can fit into more comfortably has a point about the recline. If he's already tight on space, having it restricted further by a recline can be understandably irritating. But what he doesn't have the right to do, in my view, is rudely shove the seat forward, verbally assault the reclining party or insert the Knee Defender. A better solution, I think, is to simply politely explain the space problem and politely ask the person not to recline. Or perhaps split the difference and recline just a little.  Some people like to work or snooze and a little recline helps that. I get lower back pain in some airline seats after 30 minutes or so and the recline alleviates that. But from here on out, I think I'll just ask the person behind me before I push the button.

Whatever the case, never, ever get into an altercation in the cabin about this. It's just not that important and if things really spin out of control, you risk arrest or getting yourself placed on a no-fly list. Think how those passengers on the United flight must have felt being delayed because a couple of people couldn't contain their emotions. Think how the two ejectees must have felt.

Where I fear this is going is that airlines will remove the recline feature entirely, denying all of us one last comfort simply because a few people go ballistic over being denied knee space or the ability to recline. And as for the Time author blaming the airlines, well, they certainly had a hand. But so do their customers who have demanded and responded to ever lower fares that have encouraged smaller seat pitch in the quest for profits. You get what you pay for has never been more precisely expressed than the distance between seats 17A and 18A. If we keep asking for it, they'll keep giving it to us.

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Comments (36)

Did that plane really need to divert? I can't help wondering whether or not flight attendants and crew might be a little too quick to treat these idiot-passenger-conflicts and other bad behavior like emergencies. Diverting an airliner is not only extremely expensive, but terribly inconvenient to everyone on board.

Posted by: Thomas Reilly | August 27, 2014 9:54 AM    Report this comment

Flying on charters and airlines with reduced pitch, seems to give you 2 annoying problems. Seat pitch that is way out of line given the size of todays passengers, and people that don't seem to have ever been outside of their backyard. As much as I would like to put my seat back on a 5 hour flight, I leave it in place out of consideration of the person behind me. Inevitably, the planet walker in front of me does exactly the opposite. So what is the solution? Maybe going a little easier on the pitch, and locking the seat.

Posted by: mike brooker | August 27, 2014 11:44 AM    Report this comment

I agree that near-fisticuffs are an inappropriate solution to a situation that was known to be likely before either passenger bought a seat. "Don't do the crime (agreeing to be squeezed into a 28-inch-pitch restraining device) if you can't do the time (probably twice the published flight endurance, these days)."

Riding in passenger airliners has become less pleasant than being squeezed into a triangular paper tube and being shipped via FedEx. At least with FedEx, you'd get to your destination on time. Is there some natural limitation to the airlines' madness? With the experimental "standing seats" configuration now being investigated by Airbus and others, we may get a chance to find out. I guess the ultimate limit is how fast the airframe manufacturers can evacuate a full load of Olympic athlete passengers, through the existing doorways.

I'm 6'-3" tall. I stopped flying on the airlines more than a decade ago, when this pitch madness got under way in earnest. I can fly my own plane anywhere on the continent for less than the price of a first-class seat - which is what I would have to buy now, unless I could be assured of getting an exit-row seat (generally, the airlines won't do that). For flights of less than 700 miles, it's faster, anyway.

A 300 KT personal jet is looking better every day...

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | August 27, 2014 1:04 PM    Report this comment

Using the "Knee Defender" is not only hostile, it is dangerous. The Knee Defender prevents the seat in front of you from reclining, but it also locks the tray table in the "down" position, where it can pose a hazard to evacuating the aircraft.

The ever-shrinking seat pitch is something to combat with dollars (simply don't fly on airlines that expect a 6-foot-tall person to squeeze into seats designed for a four-foot-tall person). Yes I know that's a rather dear option given what we pay for the misery of airline travel, but frankly unless we demand better things will continue to get worse.

Posted by: Michael Graziano | August 27, 2014 2:56 PM    Report this comment

Is there some natural limitation to the airlines' madness?"

Yep, Michael and Paul alluded to it. We've given away the consensus, power and knowledge of boycott and protest to apathy and cheap. So much easier to blame the airlines - a business where one actually has to show up physically to use it - and we STILL can't ever seem to muster up any consensus to change the power structure to our favor, and not theirs. They're a business, they react to us - shouldn't be the other way around.

At least as I age, I seem to be shrinking slightly so maybe one day I'll fit comfortably into a coach seat.

Posted by: Dave Miller | August 27, 2014 4:49 PM    Report this comment

My last flying job for a now defunct fractional required airlining to the airplane that I flew. Airlining was the worst part of that job. I would rather remove the lav tank in my aircraft than deal with the airlines. I also am 6'3", and hated when the person in front of me reclined their seat. I would pick the first exit row if available because I knew the row in front of me could not recline. I have a vacation planned and have paid for a first class seat so my wife and I would not have to put up with that nonsense. I would favor removing the recline mechanism in all coach seats if that helps preserve what is left of any leg room.

Posted by: matthew wagner | August 27, 2014 6:19 PM    Report this comment

The woman in the altercation is an aggressive, assaulting idiot and the man is a passive, testa dura dork. Reclining seat rage syndrome?

Next blog please!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 27, 2014 7:06 PM    Report this comment

I'm all for eliminating the seat recline. People of smaller size may not realize the impossibility of sitting in a seat sideways for 4 hours because the seat pitch is less than your femur length. It is a legitimate problem. You say just don't fly then? How is a ticket buyer supposed to know the pitch is only 28 inches until you get on the plane? They don't tell you that when you buy the ticket. Airline flying unfortunately is often part of one's livelihood and cannot be eliminated unless you want to lose your job, so not flying is not an option.

Posted by: A Richie | August 27, 2014 8:04 PM    Report this comment

I looked at the Knee Defender site - looks like they lock the tray tables down. I can't believe they are legal (I did read the statement from the FAA rep on their website)

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 27, 2014 8:37 PM    Report this comment

Richie, there are a number of sources for seat pitch info. Seat Guru is pretty complete:

http://www.seatguru.com/charts/shorthaul_economy.php

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 28, 2014 5:10 AM    Report this comment

This passenger was in economy plus. I'm 6'3 and full recline from the seat in front of me is not even close to being a problem in these seats. But I digress. UA contract of carriage prohibits this device and prohibits modifying our airplanes. Idiot passenger refused to comply with a direct order from the flight attendant which must be treated as if it comes from the Captain. Same situation: I'm landing and making sure the FBI is there. Local cops have no jurisdiction. Oh, let's pick someplace more conservative like Indiana. Maybe the US attorney isn't so busy and he can collect the $25000 fine. He.doesn't have any IL politicians to prosecute. It works. I've done it.

Posted by: Mark McCormick | August 28, 2014 6:27 AM    Report this comment

From my research it emerges that, when compared to typical domestic air travel, Roman slave galleys had:

1. Significantly more legroom 2. Wider aisles 3. Fewer disruptive passengers 4. Better ventilation 5. Zero deep vein thrombosis. 6. Zero lost-baggage.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Turuma_Lodbrok-midship.jpg

Posted by: john hogan | August 28, 2014 7:23 AM    Report this comment

I think airline travel has become part of a massive psychological trial investigating just how much abuse, indignity, humiliation and outright torture people will tolerate if the airfare is low enough.

Posted by: Richard Montague | August 28, 2014 7:51 AM    Report this comment

Mark, from another news story:

"No arrests were made because the incident "was deemed a customer service issue and not a threat to aviation security," said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Ross Feinstein.

Doesn't sound like a customer service beef to me. Refusing to obey a flight crew member is a federal offense. Maybe United didn't want the bad publicity, which they got anyway. The same story, which just added new details, said economy plus has three inches of additional leg room.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 28, 2014 8:30 AM    Report this comment

@John Hogan. "From my research it emerges that, when compared to typical domestic air travel, Roman slave galleys had:..."

I like your amusing description.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 28, 2014 9:47 AM    Report this comment

"I think airline travel has become part of a massive psychological trial investigating just how much abuse, indignity, humiliation and outright torture people will tolerate if the airfare is low enough.""

So true, Richard. We do it sub/consciously with how much weight can we hang on our bodies before trouble, how many years can we smoke without problems - many issues we try to get away with for as long as possible.

As far as the airlines go... no doubt some (and in government, too) see that in us also, and tend to fly the same flight plan that we are on. Why squeeze the profit margins if the great unwashed are pacified, right?

I do wonder, though, where my purchased, personal seat space begins and ends now with this Knee Defender.

Posted by: Dave Miller | August 28, 2014 1:57 PM    Report this comment

Old news! Why write about legroom, Paul, when there are drunken catfights in restrooms to cover?

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | August 28, 2014 2:22 PM    Report this comment

I am puzzled about the 'need to recline' a seat. After all it is not a secret that space is minimal, and common courtesy would be to consult with the passenger behind you if feel 'the need' to recline. It amounts to courtesy and being considerate of those around you, or lack of. Just because the seat can recline a few inches shouldn't mean you should without due consideration of the passenger behind you. The only more annoying thing would be a person reclining on to a tall passenger behind, and then talking on a cell phone too.

Posted by: Michael Coffey | August 29, 2014 10:16 AM    Report this comment

You may consider using a Knee Defender a hostile act, but what about those selfish and inconsiderate passengers who don't give a damn about the people behind them and simply send the seat crashing into their knees with no warning whatsoever and no attempt to do it slowly and with a bit of care? I've ended up with bruised knees on probably 75% of the flights I've taken because of jackasses like that. Their actions simply say, "It's all about ME." Sorry, but they don't get any sympathy from me. On the other hand, if someone warns me in advance or moves his seat slowly and gently enough for me to have time to get my knees out of the way, I'm perfectly willing to meet him halfway.

Posted by: Jan Jansen | August 29, 2014 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I hate to say it but, it may be time for regulations on this matter and the accompanying one of the 350+ pound person squeezing out the others in the same seat block. There should be set dimensions for seat spacing and weight. If you can't fit in a regular seat then you buy two or they install "Big People Seats" and make bigger folks pay more instead of punishing everyone else. There are significant safety issues here as well. Pack in more people as they are doing now and see if the established parameters for emergency exiting still work. They don't!

Posted by: Dale Rush | August 29, 2014 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Good call Dale.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 29, 2014 11:46 AM    Report this comment

Paul, thanks for the tip about finding seat pitch on Seat Guru. I had no idea this stuff was published. My guess is probably 98% of the traveling pubic is also unaware of it.

Posted by: A Richie | August 29, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

I'm 6'2" and countless times have had the seat back in front of me SLAMED into my knees. It is entirely about courtesy! If the person in front of me says they are going to lean the seat back that is one thing. When some jerk that is 110 pounds and 5' 5" slams the seat back into my knees- they get what they deserve. I usually ask them if they can raise their seat back (once was told that they paid for the seat and they will do what they want to). Baring meeting me half way, I make sure that if I have to reach for something that I do hit the back of their seat that is sticking 6-8 inches from my face, use their seat back as a hand hold, or put my knees in their back. One other thing that I have done is to sneeze on the top of their heads and when they say something about being cautious, I tell them I'm being just as cautious as they are.

In the last 20+ years avoid airlines as much as possible and I have chosen to fly myself - as the PIC no one argues with me! I leave when I want to, get there when planned, enjoy the flight (usually), and come home when I want to. I haven't missed a connection, had the TSA grope, or lost a bag yet!

Posted by: Dennis Boyer | August 29, 2014 12:19 PM    Report this comment

There is an old saying in manufacturing planning: "Cut the lead time in half. Cut it in half again. You'll know when you have cut it too much."

I think the airlines have a situational awareness deficit if they do not realize they have cut the pitch too much.

Bob T. (6'3")

Posted by: Robert Tezyk | August 29, 2014 12:42 PM    Report this comment

When you buy a ticket, you get your seat, including the ability to recline the seat. Because the person behind you would like to appropriate the space represented by the recline of your seat does not mean that he is entitled to it.

Posted by: Henry Perritt | August 29, 2014 12:45 PM    Report this comment

"There should be set dimensions for seat spacing and weight. If you can't fit in a regular seat then you buy two or they install "Big People Seats" and make bigger folks pay more instead of punishing everyone else."

Right on! Discounts then for tall folk like me who can't recline due to a Knee Defender behind me, or would like to use the space in front of me to turn my head occasionally, or can't extend my legs from airline pitch parameters.

Maybe discounts for children and frail, tiny people who save the airline fuel, too. Punitive damages for suffering the 'punishment' of intolerance, too. Let's start making money instead of always spending it on airline travel!

Gotta give kudos to the inventor - it's not only creative, effective and legal, it's also a weapon, disguised as a tool, that gets past the TSA.

Posted by: Dave Miller | August 29, 2014 1:28 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if the FAA ever did a test with the current seat pitch measurements in coach to see if it is possible for a person as tall as I (6'3") to assume the "brace" position. I've tried several times just to see if it is possible and I usually end up with a face full of the table in the seat in front of me, not the seat cushion.

Posted by: matthew wagner | August 29, 2014 4:13 PM    Report this comment

At first I thought the topic was boring and a waste of time. Then i started learning about seat pitch and other interesting details. But more than anything I realized after reading about "Human beings, like all other ferocious expressions of life, are made in struggle and for struggle, in terror (fear) and in horror (nasty foes, competitors, fights, wars). ". My attitude now is to be courteous and tolerant. Thank you Paul.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 29, 2014 6:33 PM    Report this comment

I see it like smoking -- for years non-smokers said nothing and put up with the stink from cigarettes, pipes and cigars in public and enclosed spaces. No more. Similarly, for years people have been putting up with the extreme rudeness of people slamming seatbacks into knees. No more.

Posted by: John Patson | August 30, 2014 6:40 AM    Report this comment

As I read the story in a national newspaper, it was the gent in back who complained not about his knees or legs but about the fact that he couldn't use his laptop when the seat in front of him reclined. The article did not mention his size but I'm over 6 feet, fly over 100,000 miles annually and, except in the regional or commuter planes, have never experienced his problem even though I use a 15 inch laptop and fly economy class. Also, the two combatants were in premium economy seats which gives at least 34 inch seat pitch and that airline, like most, does NOT allow the use of the Knee Defender. The advice to switch seats was probably not an option. More and more these planes are filled to near capacity. Flying commercially these days is a hardship, even though I am pre TSA and check in with group one. Unfortunately my single engine plane is not an alternative.

Posted by: louis simons | August 30, 2014 6:50 AM    Report this comment

I had an incident on an Air New Zealand flight while in a premium economy seat. On a long flight I expected the seat in front of me to be reclined. The problem was the force with which the guy SUDDENLY SLAMMED the seat backward. I got a big shot of adrenalin because it was done with such force. If I had been leaning forward for any reason I would have a bloody nose for sure.

Posted by: Paul Fellows | September 1, 2014 11:27 PM    Report this comment

As an Aircraft Dispatcher, I've read the FAA statement on the Knee Defender website and think that use of the device would conflict with the Aircraft Minimum equipment list. When a recline feature is broken it hase to be logged on the MEL and a maintenance fuction of locking the Seatback in the upright position performed. The Knee Defender disables, essentially "breaks" the seat recline and also prevents "normal" operation of the tray table to be moved in the event of emergency egress. In my opinion should not be able to be used.

Posted by: CHRISTOPHER BOLDUC | September 2, 2014 8:38 AM    Report this comment

Some great American once said," your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins". The same is true with the whole recline issue. If people today were concerned about others the whole discussion about slowly reclining, asking first, and only half way would be a non starter. The fact remains folks have a me first and you never attitude. Hence the, I paid for this seat and I will recline into your knees and face issue pervails. Well guess what, I also paid for my seat and want the space that comes with it. I will kick the crap out of your seat, sneeze on your head, get up and down using your seat back as a leverage point and do anything I can to get you to sit up. If you have no consideration for me, why should I care about you. Bottom line, disable the recline function on all economy seats and solve the problem. Courtesy and consideration left the station a long time ago.

Posted by: Robert O'Neill | September 4, 2014 11:24 PM    Report this comment

Some great American once said," your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins". The same is true with the whole recline issue. If people today were concerned about others the whole discussion about slowly reclining, asking first, and only half way would be a non starter. The fact remains folks have a me first and you never attitude. Hence the, I paid for this seat and I will recline into your knees and face issue pervails. Well guess what, I also paid for my seat and want the space that comes with it. I will kick the crap out of your seat, sneeze on your head, get up and down using your seat back as a leverage point and do anything I can to get you to sit up. If you have no consideration for me, why should I care about you. Bottom line, disable the recline function on all economy seats and solve the problem. Courtesy and consideration left the station a long time ago.

Posted by: Robert O'Neill | September 4, 2014 11:25 PM    Report this comment

Geez Paul why did you have to bring this subject up. It is now IMPOSSIBLE for me not to say something. You know me... I am not a big guy... and as a result the torture of sitting in the back of almost any commercial airliner is slightly less of a bother for me.....EXCEPT.... when you get the unfortunate privilege of being put in the middle seat penalty box between two of our civilizations largest members. That happens to me all too often it seems. Maybe my bad luck, or maybe the airlines have my frequent flyer account tagged as "little guy who wont mind being squashed between other larger members of our species". I recall a trans-con flight literally smothered between two ladies both of which easily tipped the scales at 300 lbs a piece. What made the ordeal worse was they knew each other and insisted on talking and interacting with each other as if I was not even there. Thankfully, after about 2 hours one of the flight attendants happened to notice the extent of my torment and said he had an important message for me and asked if would accompany him to another part of the plane. The mere act of extricating myself from the place of my anatomical persecution would have made for a great You Tube video because the less than cooperative aisle side seat mate had enormous difficulty and demonstrated indignation at the simple request to move herself so as to allow my exit. The important message was that the flight attendant and the entire flight crew apologized for the inappropriate seating assignment on behalf of the airline. I asked him why it took him so long to notice and he readily admitted that on his numerous trips through the plane that he didn't even see me and didn't think anyone was actually sitting in the center seat between those two ladies. Happily, they re-seated me in first class for the remainder of the trip. Point is, I too am not a fan of reduced space on airliners but do understand that if you want to fly cheap you have to give up some things. Your life and dignity should not have to be one of them. It should be mandatory that with reduced seat pitch and smaller width seats come a requirement that those people who mostly through their own choice and habit end up becoming too large to fit in those spaces be required to buy two seats. The seats should have a weight and volume maximum and those who don't fit should pay more. Now I know I may be opening a huge controversial can or worms with these comments and expect many accusations of lack of compassion for the Grade A Extra large part of our society, but come on. If you don't fit into a size 6 you need to pay for a size 28 or whatever. Should be the same with airline seats.

Posted by: Jeff Owen | September 12, 2014 12:05 PM    Report this comment

My wife still suffers several years after her knee was munched by a suddenly slammed-back seat. It seems the airlines design for the median...put the pitch at 28 inches because an "average" human can fit. But what about the upper half of the bell curve? My wife & I are 6-footers plus a little and can't shorten our femurs on demand; we were born that way, it isn't a life-style choice as Jeff Owen seems to think. Not sure what the answer is, but for whatever it is worth we no longer fly commercial unless there is ABSOLUTELY no other option.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 19, 2014 3:06 PM    Report this comment

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