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Space Considerations

Wednesday, October 6, 2004; Page C12

Dear Miss Manners:

I am over 6 feet tall and I never complain if the passenger in front of me reclines his seat fully in coach class on long-haul international flights.

I feel that, even though the space used is in front of me, it is not "mine": It is there to accommodate the seat in front as it moves back in its fixed, designed arc. I may make a request if I have to move out of my seat to step into the aisle, but I do not make any requests even for meals, as airline trays, bottles and glasses are designed to fit into the limited space when properly placed.

By the same token, am I not entitled to the same courtesy by the passenger behind me?

On the outward leg of a trip, I was called "a selfish man" by the passenger behind me when I reclined my seat, even after I explained that I was making no such request of the passenger in front of me. On the return leg, things turned nastier.

When one passenger said that I was "a charming man" and the other abused me, using the f-word and balling his fist, threatening to "get me," I summoned the purser and flight attendant. I explained my situation, and said calmly that if either I or my possessions were so much as touched by them, I would press charges on arrival, with possible penalties for air rage incidents including jail, fines, bans on future air travel and deportation for my assailants. I would also file complaints against the airline with the FAA and the Department of Transportation for its failure to protect a passenger against a public threat.

The purser and flight attendant explained that I was perfectly within my rights to recline my seat fully. The passengers sullenly accepted this but then went into guerrilla war mode of shifting and kicking the seat backs.

It was a tiresome journey. Shouldn't the airline make public announcements to the effect that all passengers have the right to recline their seats fully, except during landings and takeoffs?

Why are you appealing to Miss Manners? Has your lawyer stopped taking your calls?

In the etiquette system, as opposed to the legal system, we deal in courtesies, not rights. The polite person tries to negotiate a compromise that will provide some comfort for all, including himself, under difficult circumstances. Reclining the chair only partway, for example.

The real culprit here is the airlines, who install their seats so closely together that the reasonable attitude of reclining a seat that is designed to recline constitutes a nuisance to the passenger behind.

However, this deeper problem, of setting minimal comfort standards -- or even minimal health conditions -- for long-haul flights, is not one that etiquette can solve. Miss Manners may have been a bit hasty in discouraging the legal approach.

Dear Miss Manners:

I need to know which side of the groom is the bride at a formal wedding.

As in marriage, all sides. At the altar, she stands at his left, so that when the ceremony is concluded and they both turn around in place, she can take his right arm. In the receiving line at the reception, she stands nearer to the head of the line than he, because there is more interest in how she looks, and there may be more interest in kissing her. If there is a dinner, she sits at his right, knowing that this is the last time they can properly sit at a table together in company.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

© 2004, Judith Martin

© 2004 The Washington Post Company