Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

It’s not about seat reclining. Really, the controversy isn’t the cause–rather, it’s an effect.

Considering the abysmal totality of the airline experience these days, with long lines, limited customer service staffing, “unbundled” product (read: a spectrum of additional fees), security hassles, historically unprecedented high load factors, diminished on-board amenities, airport delays, weather effects, and air traffic control induced flight delays, reclining seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not really about reclining a seat–it’s about control, maybe one shred of personal authority over an already downsized and minimized bit of enroute space rented at a substantial price.

Because you can’t do a thing about security hassles, or overcrowded airports and air traffic control, about fuel surcharges and overbooking, or add-on pricing. When you get right down to it, in the huge, intransigent, inscrutable and unanswerable juggernaut that is air travel, the only person who has no choice but to listen to you is the passenger within arm’s reach of your seat, upright or reclined.

cell vid

But the sad irony of the seat recline squabble is this: the very victims of all of the above factors are turning on each other. And “each other” is simply one victim victimizing another.

The Knee Defender is the catalyst, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the final straw in a backbreaking load of unpleasantry that has become air travel. We put up with even worse travel hassles in other modes of transport without a protest: filthy cabs, rude drivers, subways packed, buses too, and often unclean and from a crime standpoint, dangerous crowds of travelers.

Less Air 1

But that’s because we don’t spend a week’s wages on the trip, nor do we travel for hours on end with unreliable arrival times and in some cases, changed destinations.

The Knee Defender actually did us all a favor. Rather than having the current “We’re madder than hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment erupt over wanting a full can of soda or a seat armrest (or, anyone notice the lavs never get sanitized?), endangering a blameless crewmember (remember, we have zero say in any of the above), the seat recline issue blew up into a national debate about limits.


That is, the limit of one passenger’s authority over another (the answer: zero, and you’ll deplane in cuffs if you push it) but more importantly, how much shrinkage in the “airline product” can the traveling public withstand?

That, for any airline exec actually looking at this all-important breaking point in both civility and tolerance from the consumer standpoint, is wholly separate from the spreadsheet analysis of revenue and profit margin.

Plain and simple, it ain’t just about the seats and knees, despite the headlines. It’s hearts and minds and human tolerance for complete lack of any power over the last frontier–personal space. We’ve lost all the other fights about price, service, seating, crowding and “security.”


The airline that finds a way to fill the seats while reversing the trend of shrinking space and diminished personal authority will be the miracle worker that restores both personal dignity and travel value to the skies–and the marketplace.

Until then, industry regulators, law enforcement, crews and passengers can expect more tumult in the already unpleasant skies.


16 Responses to “Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.”

  1. Hi Chris
    As a matter of common civility and in consideration to the pax behind me, I NEVER recline my seat in economy service.
    If the person in front reclines their seat, it not only reduces the already minimal personal space, but makes it difficult to keep the seat back IFE in focus. On short-haul flights in particular, I just don’t see the need.

  2. Bill Brandt Says:

    Years ago, there was a wonderful writer for Flying Magazine (IMO itself just a shell of its former self) – Len Morgan was an airline pilot up through the 50s or 60s and he wrote a column lamenting the lack of civility even then (in the 1970s).

    I think it is more than just declining personal space, it is broader in origin – look at road rage, or so many other daily interactions.

    I would think – anyone buying a “knee defender” is knowingly setting themselves up for a conflict.

    Len wrote of a time when people dressed up to go flying – and it wasn’t that long ago.

    Now it is almost like a cattle car.

    But having flown a few months ago on a Delta flight across the country – I was amazed at how the airlines are adapting to this fuel problem.

    Every plane was tailored to the flight – from the Embraer commuter jet flying us to a hub to (the biggest) 757 – I can remember when we might have been on a half-empty 777 or 747.

    Every seat on those planes were taken – not an empty seat to be seen.

    Their nickel and diming us for everything was irritating – but in the big picture they were adjusting to an era where the customer uses the internet to find the absolute lowest fares, and the airline has huge (chiefly fuel) expenses. I would rather they stay in business than go bankrupt and disappear.

    I hadn’t been on an airline in a good 8 years (yes I’d prefer to drive) but went in knowing it will be a bit uncomfortable – was surprised that the TSA actually made it easier (I was on a {preferred list” or something a-ruther – how they knew beforehand that I wasn’t a potential terrorist (with help from the NSA?) is anyone’s guess, but they made the screening process actually better this time).

    But at least to me – I knew it was going to be coach, a bit crowded, and just suck it up.

    The problem you speak of isn’t so much “the last straw” and “I’m not going to take it anymore” but a basic “me first” and lack of consideration for anyone else – which seems to be endemic these days.

    And I heard both parties were hauled off the plane before their destination, which was the right move.

    • “Their nickel and diming us for everything was irritating – but in the big picture they were adjusting to an era where the customer uses the internet to find the absolute lowest fares, and the airline has huge (chiefly fuel) expenses. I would rather they stay in business than go bankrupt and disappear.”

      Bill Brandt, hear, hear. I had a brief stint in the operations research department at American Airlines, and I know first-hand how difficult it is for carriers to make ends meet. It’s frustrating to hear people complain about airfares and subsequent add-on fees when I know airlines are running on razor-thin margins.

      All the while, passengers want perfect safety and comfort provided by qualified maintenance technicians who service new equipment that’s operated by professional pilots like our author. But they don’t want to pay for it. They think it should cost peanuts to hurtle through the sky at 500 knots. Meanwhile, every person in the operation—from the ticket agent to the attendants—are working damn hard to keep the gargantuan apparatus afloat.

      One thing or another has got to give in the Iron Triangle of safety cost, and comfort. It’s obvious which one airlines are forced to choose.

      • Bill Brandt Says:

        Michael – I remember – had to have been a good 15 years ago – someone was starting a “small” airline – really a lone 727 that left LAX – think its only destination was JFK or La Guardia – but they wanted to make it almost as luxurious as a private jet.

        Had a lounge, bar, etc. Carried maybe 30-40 people?

        It was priced commensurately – a bit higher than normal First Class – but they went bust.

        People want luxury but don’t want to pay for it.

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  4. Chris,

    You are either a pilot with a minor in psychlogy or a psychologist with a minor in aviation (yikes).

  5. We just paid $29 for an extra three inches of legroom on a flight to Montreal and it was totally worth it! What I wouldn’t give for an exit row!

  6. It’s ironic that legroom is shrinking at a time when the size of the average passenger is increasing. I don’t blame the airlines for doing whatever it takes to stay in business; I just wonder what the future holds if waistlines keep expanding, causing passenger personal space to decrease even further!

  7. I have to agree…..the ‘golden age of flying, and civility is overwith. So folks let’s put on your ‘big boy and big girl panties ” and act like the grown-up that YOU are! If you can’t behave, aren’t happy in coach (then buy an upgraded seat in business or first), travel by train or drive yourself. Having crews have to divert an entire aircraft is ridiculous when we have bigger and worse things to be concerned about in the air. then the lack of pitch in your seat recline! Jus saying…..former airline from the late World’s Most Experienced Airline.

    • Bill Brandt Says:

      Those were the days when being a FA on the ‘Worlds Most Experienced Airline” came with a requirement of speaking at least 2 languages

  8. I’m with Bill is seeing a general decline in common courtesy and simple respect. You see it everywhere: on the street, at the grocery store, while driving, etc.

    We now live in a world where pricing information is so ubiquitous that it’s the primary measure for the purchase of anything.
    The various fees that airlines now charge are simply economics at work: it’s a measurement via money of what different people value while traveling by air, and apportions scarce commodities (like, leg space) to those who value them most.
    Works for me, but I’m probably not your typical airline passenger. I fly perhaps once or twice a year and seldom longer than a 2-2 1/2 hour flight. I don’t buy food or drink, don’t check a bag (a backpack carry on serves me just fine), don’t recline my seat, don’t care if I’m in the middle seat, don’t use a laptop on the pull-down tray, and don’t use the restroom. It’s transportation, not a hotel room. IMHO.

    I do, however, object to the airline that charges for BOTH checked bags and for carry ons. One or t’other seems a fairer deal. If it spreads across the industry, look for passengers to board wearing 3-4 days’ worth of clothing to escape the baggage fees. 🙂

  9. I am at the point, now, if I can get to where I am going in a day’s travel by any other method (other than the bus), I’ll take that option. Even on SWA, which was a bastion of good customer service (at lease in face-to-face mode), seems to be slipping down the Surly Highway.

    • Me too: if it’s within 300 miles, I’ll drive. Really doesn’t take any longer than getting to the airport an hour early, security hassles, crowds and delays.

      • Chris, make it 400 miles. Flown on the airline once since retirement. Used credit card miles to go first class. It wasn’t.

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