Reclining Airplane Seats Are Getting Pushback — And Not Just From Knees Airline seat space is prime real estate, and fights have been breaking out over who owns it. Who has the right to comfort — the person who wants to recline, or the person sitting behind them?

Reclining Airplane Seats Are Getting Pushback — And Not Just From Knees

Reclining Airplane Seats Are Getting Pushback — And Not Just From Knees

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Airline seat space is prime real estate, and fights over who owns it often turn from annoyed looks to outright rage. Who has the right to comfort — the person who wants to recline, or the person sitting behind them? NPR's David Schaper takes a very unscientific poll of some travelers with definite ideas about flying etiquette.


We bet you know this feeling. You're sitting on an airplane, and the person in front of you begins to lean back. The seat reclines until it's practically in your lap. Well, over the past two weeks, this scenario has caused at least three flights to be diverted. That's because of disputes between passengers over reclining seats invading the ever-shrinking personal space on planes. NPR's David Schaper tells us more.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When I was a kid - and I'm one of seven -- personal space in the backseat of family station wagon was almost nonexistent. So my sisters and I drew invisible lines between us. Reaching over was met with a smack, hair pull or a punch. Then came that look from Mom and Dad's threat - do I have to stop this car? Who knew that would be such good training for air traffic.

JIM ECONOMOS: I actually was on a flight recently, and it actually almost came to fisticuffs when a gentleman was pushing his seat back into another gentleman's knees.

SCHAPER: Forty-nine-year-old Jim Economos of Chicago is at O'Hare Airport, preparing to board a flight to Minneapolis.

ECONOMOS: And the gentleman who was having his seat pushed back into him was about six-foot-eight, and it was in his lap. And the gentleman kept trying to push his seat back, and it literally was a tug-of-war.

SCHAPER: Eonomos is a frequent flyer. He says, he's seeing more and more of these kinds of conflicts as airlines try to cram planes full to keep fares low and squeeze out more profits.

ECONOMOS: I think it's absolutely getting worse. I've been traveling over 20 years. And obviously, we had travel issues after 9/11. But it feels like the airlines have been actually pushing the seats tighter and tighter together, and even people who are of an average height have been feeling the heat, I think.

SCHAPER: In recent days, a Delta flight from New York to Palm Beach was diverted to Jacksonville after one passenger berated another for reclining her seat. Air marshals intervened on an American flight to Paris when two passengers started fighting over a reclining seat. And a United flight from Newark to Denver was forced to land in Chicago when a man used a product called a Knee Defender to prevent the woman in front of him from reclining into his personal space.

ABIGAIL VERNON: That kind of behavior is unacceptable.

SCHAPER: Forty-nine-year-old Abigail Vernon of Boston says, the airlines are making the right call by diverting planes and kicking unruly passengers off. And other frequent flyers say, people just need to relax and chill out as the flying experience becomes more bus-like. Thirty-one-year-old Allie Whitmere of Chicago is heading to Memphis. She says, she too is feeling the pinch of less seat space.

ALLIE WHITMERE: I mean, I get annoyed when the people next me read their newspapers, but I'm not going to throw their newspaper down. Just put on my sunglasses and go to sleep.

SCHAPER: But others want to stand their ground, albeit politely. Piyush Soni of Madison, Wisconsin, wonders why anyone would get all bent out of shape over reclining seats in the first place.

PIYUSH SONI: The fact that the airlines have given this privilege that you can recline your seat - it must mean something because I am actually paying for a reclining seat.

SCHAPER: But to others, those are clearly fighting words, so it falls upon flight attendants to referee such disputes. Jeffrey Tonjes is a United flight attendant and spokesman for the Flight Attendants Union.

JEFFREY TONJES: When you get all these different people into one little tube, I mean, you're bound to have disagreements anywhere. The flight attendants, you know, were very adept to conflict resolution and diffusing the situation.

SCHAPER: Not unlike Mom or Dad mediating a dispute between bickering siblings in the back seat. Well, such skills will likely be in high demand for some time to come. Travel experts say, because of airline economics, it appears tightly packed planes are here to stay. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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