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Air Passenger Fracas Serves Warning: Recline at Your Own Risk

Maybe you heard the story today from the AP. Male air passenger places a Knee Defender device on the seat back in front of him, preventing that seat from reclining. Female passenger in that seat objects. Flight attendant tells man to remove device, man refuses, woman complainant drenches the man with water. (Why oh why couldn’t it have been red wine?! Much better story that way.) Pilot diverts the Newark-Denver flight to Chicago, where the two offending parties are removed, but not arrested. We all know who is right and who is wrong in this tale. Right?

Trouble is, half of you side with the woman (“It’s my right to recline!”) and half of you side with the man (“Ouch! Your seat back is squooshing me!”). And so, in today’s lesson in airplane etiquette, what can we learn from this airborne altercation?

First thing, the $21.95 Knee Defender isn’t illegal. The FAA leaves it to the airlines to set policy, and most of them, according to AP, don’t allow such devices. But could someone still use them? Sure. They’re not obtrusive. Your tray table has to be down to use them, so you can’t really see them unless you look hard. And the person in front of you will likely think his or her seat won’t recline because it’s busted.

Second thing: But isn’t that sort of a mean trick to play? Of course—particularly if you forgot to hand the non-reclining passenger a “courtesy card” that comes with Knee Defender. The card’s message says, in a nutshell, “Sorry you can’t recline, but that’s kinda too bad for you, isn’t it?”

Next thing to know is that some airlines, including Allegiant and Spirit, have installed non-reclining seats. Result: no more altercations (plus they could squeeze in some more seats on the planes). Other airlines, including Delta and American, are installing articulating seat pans on some of their planes in which the seat moves forward as it tilts back, so you essentially are taking away legroom from yourself instead of the guy behind you.

But until all airlines install articulating seat pans or non-reclining seats, please follow Mark’s Rules of Reclining.

1. Never recline during meal service. When the rolling food trays come out, seats go upright.

2. Don’t recline fully unless it’s a night flight and people are sleeping.

3. Don’t recline suddenly and forcefully. You might spill your rear neighbor’s Bloody Mary or damage her Macbook Pro (it almost happened to me!).

Finally, whose side am I on in the United Airlines contretemps? I’m on the pilot’s side. Just get those two knuckleheads off the plane. Flying is stressful enough as it is without those Bozos on board.

Mark Orwoll is the International Editor of Travel + Leisure. You can Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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