Airlines report more passenger bickering over legroom

3 U.S. flights diverted in last 8 days over reclining issues

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NEW YORK — Squeezed into tighter and tighter spaces, air­line pas­sen­gers ap­pear to be re­bel­ling, tak­ing their frus­tra­tions out on other fli­ers.

Three U.S. flights made un­sched­uled land­ings in the past eight days af­ter pas­sen­gers got into fights over the abil­ity to re­cline their seats. Dis­putes over a tiny bit of per­sonal space might seem petty, but for pas­sen­gers whose knees are al­ready bang­ing into tray ta­bles, ev­ery inch counts.

“Seats are get­ting closer to­gether,” said Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Flight At­ten­dants, which rep­resents 60,000 flight at­ten­dants at 19 air­lines. “We have to de-es­ca­late con­flict all the time.”

There are fights over over­head bin space, leg­room and where to put win­ter coats. “We ha­ven’t hit the end of it,” Ms. Nel­son said. “The con­di­tions con­tinue to march in a di­rec­tion that will lead to more and more con­flict.”

Airlines to­day are jug­gling ter­ror warn­ings in Brit­ain, the Ebola out­break in Africa and an Icelan­dic vol­cano erupt­ing and threat­en­ing to close down Euro­pean air­space. Yet, the is­sue of dis­rup­tive pas­sen­gers has cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion. It’s get­ting to the point where the pre-flight safety vid­eos need an ad­di­tional warn­ing: Be nice to your neigh­bor.

The In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion calls un­ruly pas­sen­gers “an es­ca­lat­ing prob­lem,” say­ing there was one in­ci­dent for ev­ery 1,300 flights in the past three years. The trade group would not share de­tailed his­tor­i­cal data to back up the as­ser­tion that this is a grow­ing prob­lem.

To­day’s fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is far from glam­or­ous. Pas­sen­gers wait in long lines for se­cu­rity screen­ing, push and shove at the gate to be first on board, and then fight for the lim­ited over­head bin space. They are al­ready agi­tated by the time they ar­rive at their row and see how cramped it is.

To boost their prof­its, air­lines have been add­ing more rows of seats to planes in the past few years. South­west and United both took away one inch from each row on cer­tain jets to make room for six more seats. Amer­i­can is in­creas­ing the num­ber of seats on its Boe­ing 737-800s from 150 to 160. Delta in­stalled new, smaller toi­lets in its 737-900s, en­abling it to squeeze in an ex­tra four seats. And to make room for a first-class cabin with lie-flat beds on its trans­con­ti­nen­tal flights, JetBlue re­duced the dis­tance be­tween coach seats by one inch.

Airlines say pas­sen­gers won’t no­tice be­cause the seats are be­ing re­de­signed to cre­ate a sense of more space. South­west’s seats have thin­ner seat­back mag­a­zine pock­ets, Alaska Airlines shrank the size of tray ta­bles, and United moved the mag­a­zine pocket, get­ting it away from pas­sen­gers’ knees. But pas­sen­gers aren’t just los­ing leg­room; they’re los­ing el­bow room.

Airlines sold 84 per­cent of their seats on do­mes­tic flights so far this year, up from 81 per­cent five years ago and 74 per­cent a de­cade ago, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Trans­por­ta­tion Statis­tics. That means there are fewer and fewer empty mid­dle seats on which pas­sen­gers can spread out.

The lat­est spate of pas­sen­ger prob­lems started Aug. 24, when a man on a United flight pre­vented the woman in front of him from re­clin­ing thanks to a $21.95 gad­get called the Knee De­fender. It at­taches to a pas­sen­ger’s tray ta­ble and pre­vents the per­son in front from re­clin­ing. A flight at­ten­dant told the man to re­move the de­vice. He re­fused, and the pas­sen­ger one row for­ward dumped a cup of wa­ter on him.

Three days later, on an Amer­i­can flight from Miami to Paris, two pas­sen­gers got into a fight, again over a re­clin­ing seat, and the plane was di­verted to Boston. Then Mon­day night, on a Delta flight from New York to West Palm Beach, Fla., a woman rest­ing her head on a tray ta­ble got up­set when the pas­sen­ger in front of her re­clined his seat, hit­ting her in the head. That plane was di­verted to Jack­son­ville, Fla.

The pas­sen­gers on both the United and Delta flights were al­ready sit­ting in pre­mium coach sec­tions that have 4 inches of ex­tra leg­room.

There were 14,903 flight di­ver­sions by U.S. air­lines in the 12-month pe­riod end­ing in June, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of Depart­ment of Trans­por­ta­tion re­ports. That means, 41 flights a day, on av­er­age, make un­sched­uled land­ings at other air­ports.

The gov­ern­ment doesn’t break out the rea­son for di­ver­sions, but in­dus­try ex­perts say the vast ma­jor­ity oc­cur be­cause of bad weather or me­chan­i­cal prob­lems. And di­ver­sions re­main a tiny por­tion of the 6 mil­lion an­nual flights in the United States — less than a quar­ter of a per­cent­age point.

The de­ci­sion to di­vert is up to the pi­lot. Delta spokes­man Mor­gan Dur­rant says the crew must de­ter­mine if the per­son is go­ing to cause harm to oth­ers or has ter­ror­ist in­ten­tions. It can cost an air­line $6,000 an hour, plus air­port land­ing fees, to di­vert the stan­dard do­mes­tic jet, ac­cord­ing to in­de­pen­dent air­line an­a­lyst Robert Mann. “These costs are among the rea­sons why air­lines ought to be ar­bi­trat­ing these in-flight is­sues in­stead of di­vert­ing, not to men­tion the sig­nifi­cant in­con­ve­nience to all cus­tom­ers and pos­si­ble dis­rup­tion of on­ward con­nec­tions,” he said.

Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Bal­danza said that if air­lines in­stall seats that can re­cline, pas­sen­gers should have the right to re­cline. Of course, Spirit and Al­le­giant Air are the only U.S. air­lines to in­stall seats that don’t re­cline. “People should lose the emo­tion,” he said. “We’ve never had to di­vert be­cause of leg­room is­sues.”

United States - North America - Florida - JetBlue Airways Corp - Robert Mann


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