On Sunday a week ago, a battle broke out in the Economy Plus section of United Airlines flight 1462, flying from Newark (EWR) to Denver (DEN). During the flight, a male passenger placed a $21.95 device (shipping not included), called a “Knee Defender,” on the seat in front of him preventing its female passenger from reclining.

The woman complained. She spoke to a flight attendant. While the FAA doesn’t have a policy about such devices, United doesn’t permit them on their aircraft. The flight attendant asked the male passenger to remove it, but he refused. According to news reports, tempers flared and the female passenger threw a cup of water at him in anger.

Apparently, to defuse the situation before it got worse, the captain diverted the flight to Chicago and deplaned both passengers before continuing to Denver. Neither was arrested.

Years ago, no problems occurred when airline passengers reclined their seats. The airlines weren’t shoehorning in as many travelers into the economy cabin as today. The distance between rows of seats in economy was more generous, allowing taller people enough room to sit comfortably, even when the seat in front of them was reclined.

In more recent times, as travelers began to choose which airline to fly based almost entirely on ticket prices, the cost of flying dropped. To make up for the lost revenue, the airlines reduced service and added more seats to economy, diminishing the distance between rows of seats, causing a two-fold problem for economy customers.

First, with less space between seats, tall passengers find when the seat in front of them is reclined, it often squeezes their legs painfully between the seats. Second, any passenger using the tray table for a meal or work can be virtually trapped by the tray table when the seat in front of them is reclined, and passengers using a laptop on the tray table behind a reclined seat can have difficulty seeing its screen well.

TU_Ad_350-350Many passengers believe when you pay for your ticket for a seat which reclines, you pay for the right to recline it, so there is no reason not to do so. Other passengers firmly believe no passenger is entitled to automatically recline their economy seat.

In the United example, my sympathies generally lie with the woman who wanted to recline her seat, though I don’t think either passenger was necessarily right.

Personally, when flying economy I depend on the seat recline. I have a bad back. When sitting fully upright in an airplane seat for much more than an hour, I’m often in agony. A small recline can alleviate that pain. Others I know can’t sleep in economy seats without reclining them, at least part way. On a long flight, especially at night, that’s important.

On the other side of the reclined seat, I believe we all should have regard for each other. Tall passengers can have their legs squeezed in economy seating when the passenger in front reclines. I’ve seen that for myself. When I’ve been behind a fully reclined economy seat, at times, on some airlines, it’s been difficult to use my tray table for eating or work. Reclining rapidly, as some passengers do, is wholly unacceptable, as it can literally break a laptop, or throw a meal in the lap of a fellow passenger.

Using a device to prevent any recline of airline seats isn’t acceptable to me either, and refusing to follow a directive of the flight crew is wrong, and may be considered illegal. I don’t believe, as some passengers do, that any passenger is entitled to the full space they have when all seats are fully upright for the entire flight.

This is what I do. To get more space for myself without squeezing the person behind me, I typically will spend for a ticket in an airline’s “plus” or “comfort” economy seat section, where the rows are further apart than in regular economy. It makes a huge difference. Better yet, when I can, I use my miles to upgrade to business or first class seats.

In economy, I don’t recline on short flights to the extent possible, and never during meal service on flights which serve them. When I do recline, I typically warn the person behind me, and then recline slowly.

It’s a compromise in economy, I know, but when in economy, we need to acknowledge we’re all in the sardine can cabin together with uncomfortable seats offering too little room. It’s a place that requires everyone to be as thoughtful and courteous as possible.

What’s your take? Was either United passenger right?

What would your rather have on airplanes? Current seats range from 28" (Spirit Airlines) to 34" (JetBlue)

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Should passengers in economy be allowed to recline their seats?

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