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Americans strongly agree: You shouldn’t stop people from reclining on planes

An airborne aluminum tube, packed to the brim with human misery. (Reuters/Xavier Larrosa)

recent story of a flight diverted after a passenger squabble over legroom has prompted a lively national national debate over the ethics of seat-reclining. Some, like the New York Times' Josh Barro, argue that there's nothing wrong with reclining your own seat and possibly depriving the person behind you of a little legroom.

Others, like The Washington Post's own Alexandra Petri, contend that "while leaning back makes you only moderately more comfortable, it makes the person behind you vastly more uncomfortable."

I've searched for public opinion polling on the ethics of the airline recline and have come up empty-handed. However, there is some data on the device at the center of the current controversy, the Knee Defender. The $22 device, which has been available for over a decade, clips on to the airline seat in front of you and prevents that person from reclining.

In 2004, Newsweek conducted 1,006 telephone interviews and asked respondents the following question: "A company called 'Knee Defender' sells a device that you wedge into the airplane seat ahead of yours, keeping the person sitting in front of you from reclining their seat. Do you think it is ethical for someone to use a product like this, or not?"

Respondents overwhelmingly said use of the device was unethical. Sixty-eight percent called it unethical, compared to only 15 percent who said it was ethical. An additional 17 percent were unsure.

These responses were consistent across different educational attainments and genders. Young people were more polarized on the question than older people: Only 10 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds didn't have an opinion on the question, compared to nearly a quarter of those age 65-plus. The 18-to-29 crowed had higher rates of support (18 percent) and opposition (73 percent) to the Knee Defender than members of any other age group.


There was also some disagreement by region. Southerners (20 percent) were more than twice as likely to call the device ethical as Midwesterners (8 percent). Residents of the Northeast and West were in the middle at 15 percent.

While these figures are illuminating, they don't tell us much about opinions on the ethics of seat reclining in general. So in the absence of other data, I've posted a totally unscientific survey question below. What do you think?

[polldaddy poll=8270731]

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



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Roberto A. Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham · August 27, 2014

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