The Color of Money: The great airliner recliner debate

Michelle Singletary
Columnist September 2

Maybe it’s the dog days of a late summer. Could they be causing people to act so uncivil?

Another flight was diverted recently after two airline passengers got into a fight over a reclined seat. This is at least the third such skirmish reported in the past couple of weeks.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

First it was a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver. It had to make an unscheduled stop in Chicago after a passenger wouldn’t remove a device that kept the woman in front of him from reclining. Both were removed from the flight.

An American Airlines voyage from Miami to Paris had to be diverted to Boston after a man became unruly when the passenger in front of him tried to recline. The disgruntled passenger, who was from Paris, was subdued and handcuffed by federal air marshals, according to a statement from the Justice Department.

Then over the Labor Day holiday, a Delta flight from New York to Florida was rerouted to Jacksonville and a passenger taken off following a recliner conflict.

Let’s put this in perspective. Thousands of people fly every day without incident. People recline with no malice intended while many no doubt are uncomfortable when the passenger in front of them reclines the seat. Still, they don’t cause such a ruckus that planes have to be diverted.

But make no mistake, recliner rage is a problem. When I wrote about my take on the subject, my e-mail inbox filled up with people venting about the issue. People have been taking sides on Twitter.

“Wait. So the seat reclines, I paid for it, and now I’m not supposed to be able to recline? Really? This is DUMB,” Roland Martin, host of TV One’s daily morning show, wrote on Twitter.

Some people say they recline because if they don’t, they experience discomfort. Others complained about their long legs being crushed, arguing that they too have a right to the space in front of them.

“I also fly a bit and am rather tall, so I literally ‘feel the pain’ every time I fly,” wrote Scott Billigmeier of Leesburg, Va.

A number of people, even those who say they get upset with passengers who recline, felt the rage needs to be directed at the airline industry, not toward fellow fliers. Airlines have reduced seat space, and some are planning to install even slimmer seats to pack in more passengers.

In a survey released this summer by TripAdvisor, travelers’ top complaint was uncomfortable seats or the lack of legroom, which trumped grievances about costly ticket prices and airline fees. This should tell the airlines something.

“Airlines have been steadily shrinking the amount of seat space allotted per passenger in order to cram in more seats and maximize profits,” Peter Barnes of Greenfield, Mass., wrote to me in an e-mail. “A reclining seat reclaims a small bit of this space. As has always been the case, an increasingly disempowered class of consumers squabbles among themselves while a deregulated industry does what it pleases. . . . It’s the airlines that should be the targets of our anger.”

One reader put another economical albeit spot-on sarcastic spin on the recliner fighting.

“The airlines sell the space behind seats twice: (1) to the person behind the seat and (2) to the person sitting in the seat,” Russell Faeges, an adjunct instructor in the sociology department at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in an e-mail.

When people recline, they are using space behind their seat that the person behind them has also paid for, Faeges argued. “What surprises me is that the airlines haven’t yet instituted sales of reclining seats. They are leaving money on the table,” he said.

And it’s not just a forward and backward issue. It’s sideways, too.

On a recent flight with two legs (no pun intended), Faeges said: “I was pushed off the edge of my seat, partly into the aisle. Neighboring passengers were making intimate full body contact with me throughout the flight. I was unable to use the full seat space I had paid for. Before the first leg we were shown a video message from the airline’s CEO telling us how our comfort is his number one concern, which, given the contradiction between his word and the structure of his airplanes, I interpret to actually mean . . . it’s your problem, not mine.”

So why haven’t we demanded more comfortable space by protesting with the lack of our business? I know, when I can, I drive or take a train because flying has become so frustrating and cramped.

“We’re a captive audience and the airlines know it and take full advantage,” Maureen McArdle of Annapolis wrote in an e-mail. “As long as we passengers are fighting each other instead of banding together to fight the way we’re treated by companies to whom we are paying more for less, the airlines can keep laughing all the way to the bank.”

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@
washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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