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Seats don't recline on Spirit Airlines -- a possible solution? Photo by Spirit Airlines

Seats don’t recline on Spirit Airlines — a possible solution? Photo by Spirit Airlines

You’ve probably heard about the recent spate of airline seat reclining wars.

One passenger wants to recline his or her seat. The passenger sitting behind the first passenger doesn’t like the intrusion into his or her space — or possibly getting hit in the knees, head, or having a beverage spilled all over him or herself, or being unable to comfortably work on a laptop.

Tempers flare, and heated words are exchanged. Various rights are invoked — “my right” to recline versus (in the case of the other passenger) “my right” to have what little space the airline allots me to myself, without having your head practically lying in my lap.

Sometimes gadgets are employed. In one recent case, a “knee defender” — which prevents the person in front from being able to recline — led to a ruckus that caused the front passenger to douse the knee defending passenger with water (and it had nothing to do with the Ice Bucket Challenge).

Flight attendants are summoned. If peace can’t be kept, air marshals may appear from their seats. Arrests have been made.

And — the main reason these events have made the news — three flights have been diverted in the past week alone to make unscheduled stops at other airports, enabling flight attendants or air marshals to escort the offenders off the planes ASAP.

Meanwhile, all the other passengers are inconvenienced or worse, and the diversions (which are the pilots’ decisions) cost the airlines lots of money.

Nobody wins.

You probably have your own feelings one way or another about whether to recline or not.

My own philosophy can pretty much be summed up as: when I need to recline (usually when trying to sleep), I’m for it; when the dolt in front of me wants to recline (usually for no good reason), I’m against it.

As you can see, I’m part of the problem, not the solution. (Though I would never use a knee defender or throw water at someone; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even said a word to any reclining offender about it, choosing instead to seethe quietly.)

Actually, my beef isn’t with people who recline slowly, even if they recline quite far back; what I really dislike is someone who reclines with a jolt, which as often as not does whack my knees or threaten to spill my tomato juice. Simple common sense and politeness can go a long way to keeping everyone at least moderately happy.

So when I do recline, I try to do it as little as possible and as gradually as possible, assuming there’s someone sitting behind me. But as long as seats do have the capacity to recline, I will take the opportunity to do so, especially if the person in front of me has already reclined — in which case, I have little choice.

I believe this is an unwinnable debate, as long as the airlines continue to squeeze more and more passengers into their planes by cutting legroom and arm room and even building smaller lavatories, which are already difficult to maneuver in. All to add as many seats as possible.

It’s a shame that the victims in this situation — that is, the poor passengers jammed into the cattle cars in the skies — have to take it out on each other, possibly facing arrest and causing perhaps hundreds of fellow fliers to miss their connections, be late for appointments or inconvenience their families or friends waiting for them to arrive.

The airlines are the real villains here, but until passengers start to revolt, nothing is likely to be done about the lack of space in cattle, er, economy class.

Or maybe what we’re witnessing now is the start of such a revolt. Only time will tell.

The much-maligned Spirit Airlines, meanwhile, has instituted its own simple solution to the problem:  don’t have any reclining seats at all.

That way, everyone can be equally miserable — but at least the planes won’t be diverted and no one will get arrested.

Unless, of course, someone starts to complain loudly about the fees that Spirit tacks on to just about everything. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about their views on this debate: to recline or not to recline? And who’s more to blame: the airlines or rude passengers? Let me know your thoughts.




6 Responses to Airline Seat Reclining Wars: Everyone Loses

  • So it’s not just my imagination, the space between seats is getting smaller and smaller. This summer I witnessed an altercation over the Atlantic; several crew members were trying to talk down a guy who, apparently, could have used a little more leg room.

  • That’s right, Atilla, airlines are shaving every inch off seats and leg space that they can get away with. Ironically, one of these altercations was between two people who had purchased “premium” seats with extra legroom (probably equivalent to the standard seat of yesteryear). The other thing that the airlines are doing is cutting leg room in economy to make room for first-class “seats” that fold down flat into beds. No stories yet on any of those passengers complaining.

    • Those first class passengers pay plenty to have those beds. The rest of us, who are on a budget, must be content to be treated like cattle. I am 5’2″ and have trouble with the lack of room. I can only imagine how someone 6’2″ deals with it. I am waiting for the day when they stack us on top of one another and the people on top spill things on the ones in the seats down below. Maybe they will put seats in the baggage hold.

      • Shhhh, if the airlines hear about the seats in the luggage hold idea, Lauren, they might just try it. By the way, I’m about 6’0′ and have plenty of trouble with space so I always get an aisle seat; the hazard is getting my foot run over by the beverage cart when my foot strays out into the aisle an inch or two.

  • I’m with you, Clark. I slowly recline and usually look behind me first to see if I might be disturbing the passenger behind me. There have been times when I was unable to recline and was not seated in front of an emergency exit row or in any other non-reclining seat and suspect that I may have been a victim of the knee-defender. Who would come up with something like that in the first place? Anybody who flies knows that seat space is tight and should be prepared to deal with it. The knee-defender seems the perfect device for those with inflated senses of entitlement. For me, there are worse things than a reclining seat on a plane including unruly children, the 600 pound guy wearing a wife-beater who sits next to me and thinks that the armrest should go up so that he can encroach on my seat, and the person who doesn’t believe in bathing or wearing deodorant. Those folks who caused the flight diversion should have to cover the associated costs and be added to a no-fly list.
    I also quietly seethe about such offenders and then post about the experience to a forum.

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
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