Flap over reclining seat on plane raises societal questions

It seems there are two types of people in the world, or at least on an airplane: those who believe they have a fundamental right to recline their seat and those who cannot imagine anything worse than people who believe they have a fundamental right to recline their seat.

This weekend, on United Airlines Flight 1462 from Newark to Denver, those two types clashed in spectacular fashion. A female passenger became irate when she discovered that she couldn’t put her seat back because a man sitting behind her was using a “Knee Defender” — a $22 device that can force a seat to remain upright. When the argument escalated to the point where the woman threw a cup of water at the man after he refused to remove the device, the flight was diverted to Chicago, where the two passengers, both 48, were escorted off the plane.

It’s a story, in a sense, about two possibly unhinged people behaving badly. But it’s also about civility, public space and modern air travel.

“Who is supposed to yield?” is a basic question in any society, said Janie Harden Fritz, a professor from Duquesne University specializing in civility. “When we live in public with others, we’re going to step on each others’ toes sometimes. Part of living with others is yielding sometimes, or thinking others should yield to us.”

As for the plane, Ms. Fritz believes that if a person were to demonstrate model plane etiquette, the passenger in front should turn around and ask the passenger behind if he or she minds if the seat reclines. “Most people, if you ask, will say go ahead and lean back.”

But what actually happens most of the time, said Steve Hansen, of Manchester, is that people recline their seats without asking. And for Mr. Hansen, who is 6-foot-2, it’s not a situation he’s happy with.

“I’m ashamed to admit it but I am thinking evil thoughts the whole time,” he said, of the person reclining the seat in front of him. “You’ve made this passive/​aggressive choice to violate my space.”

Mr. Hansen will jam his legs into the seat in front of him “so they understand they are going into an object.” He will occasionally speak loudly about his discomfort. He believes that once upon a time, when airlines were more spacious, seat reclining may have been appropriate.

In recent years, seat pitch — the distance from a point on one seat to the seat in front of it — has decreased from 32 or 33 inches to 31 inches, with some airlines going as low as 28 inches, according to TripAdvisor Flights, which runs the website SeatGuru.com.

“People should understand that a reclining seat is from another era — it’s like smoking on a flight,” he said. “You just don’t get to do that anymore.”

Mr. Hansen is not alone — three years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten created a card to be passed to a seat recliner. “I know you meant no harm in reclining your seat,” reads the card, “but doing so takes an already disagreeable situation and makes it even more stressful for others.”

But such a view is likely one of a passionate minority. Most fliers — even tall ones — are probably more like Lisa Tomasovich of Franklin Park. The 5-foot-11 Ms. Tomasovich travels frequently, and admits that seat reclining used to bother her to the point where she wouldn’t recline her own seat as a matter of principle.

She’s even had moments where she’s had to speak to people to plead for mercy. “I felt like I was holding their body weight up with my knees,” she said. But these days, she accepts that people recline their seats and she reclines her own.

For Nat Hunter of Hampton, it’s a matter of perspective. He is 6-foot-8, and will certainly do everything in his power to be seated in an exit row with more leg room. If that fails, and someone in front of him reclines a seat, he will sometimes stand up and loom over them, so the passenger can see his height.

But it’s not something he gets worked up about. “I just jam myself in there, or sit in an aisle and have one leg out,” he said. “If you get very upset about every little indignity that comes your way, then when the big one comes along it’s like the boy who cried wolf.”

For the 6-foot-8 Wesley Lyons, a motivational speaker and former Steeler who grew up in North Braddock and now lives in Homestead, it’s an issue he just tries to avoid entirely. He generally refuses to fly any airline except Southwest, where he’ll politely ask to preboard so that he can sit in the front row. On a recent trip where he ended up in regular seating, he asked a woman in an exit row if he could switch, even offering her money to do so (she switched for free).

Flying is so uncomfortable that the Knee Defender, which is technically allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration but banned by major airlines, is something he’d consider. “It’s a little deceitful,” he said, “but at the same time you want to make sure you can get to your destination without being in too much pain.”

Mr. Hansen, of Manchester, believes pre-flight announcements should instruct passengers to speak to the person sitting behind them. “They should force the person who is actually reclining to have to confront the other person, but they don’t do that at all. There is no protocol so that of course becomes the problem.”

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.

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