March 30, 2020
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America in recline? Sharing less and less space on planes

Seth Wenig | AP
Seth Wenig | AP
This March 16, 2017, file photo shows the interior of a commercial airliner at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

“You know, we’re living in a society!”

Those words from Seinfeld’s not-so-moral philosopher George Costanza felt particularly appropriate as the internet dissected a disagreement between two airline passengers that went viral for all the wrong reasons.

In the video, taken by one of the two passengers on an American Eagle (American Airlines regional branch) flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, a male passenger in the final row of the plane is continuously hitting the reclined seat in front of him — which was occupied by the woman recording on her phone. A debate ensued online, with people breaking into factions over which of the two passengers were in the wrong.

“I was leaving a teachers conference and we got onto the plane and the man behind me, as soon as we got in the air, I reclined and he asked me if … I would put my seat back up while he ate, which I did,” Wendi Williams, the woman who reclined, told Fox News. “About 10 minutes later, he was done and I put my seat back down at which point he started full-on punching the back of my seat really hard that I was flying forward,” Williams added.

Care should be taken about turning every ugly moment caught on camera into a referendum on the state of America. But this video likely went viral because it touches on some important, albeit simplistic, questions: Are we too territorial? Do we have a healthy consideration for other people’s space and safety? Can’t we all just get along?

Of course, this situation could have been avoided if either or both of the passengers had decided to take the high road. The woman could have recognized the inconvenience created by reclining her seat, and though she had every right to recline the seat she paid for, could have given the man behind her some more space. The man, regardless of any frustration about his seat, should unquestionably have refrained from striking the seat in front of him repeatedly, let alone one time. That was an unacceptable and violent reaction to an inconvenience.

But at the end of the day, if we’re allowed to backseat drive (or in this case, fly), we find ourselves pointing a finger at the airlines. Sure, these two individuals probably could have and should have handled the situation differently. Let’s not forget, however, that it is the airline companies that are packing people into smaller and smaller spaces in pursuit of profits while encouraging passengers to essentially self-police potential conflict.

This flight was run under American Airlines’ umbrella, but it was the reaction from Delta Air Lines’ CEO that was particularly telling, and somewhat underhanded.

“I think the proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody, that you ask if it’s OK first and then you do it,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on CNBC.

“I think if someone knows there’s a tall person behind them and they want to recline in their seat I think the polite thing would be to make certain it was OK,” Bastian said. “I never recline because I don’t think it’s something, since I’m the CEO of the airline, that I should be reclining my seat, and I never say anything if someone reclines into me.”

There’s nothing wrong with politeness among passengers. We encourage it, too. But it’s ridiculous for airlines to set the stage for this type of conflict by giving people less and less room, and then for company leadership to put the onus on passengers to defuse the situation.

It is worth noting that Delta is experimenting with seats that don’t recline as much, and passengers can exercise consumer choice by flying airlines that offer more space. People also can choose to respect each other’s space and comfort. But when assessing who was wrong in the most recent debate about a “right to recline,” let’s not forget that the airline industry’s space crunch helps make this mini turf war possible.

It should be this simple: Either give people enough room to recline without impacting other passengers, or don’t give people the opportunity to recline at all.

Now about those overhead bins…

 


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