Recliner Rage

Passenger arguments over reclining seat backs have resulted in at least three unplanned landings recently. Tempers were flaring, and the pilots deemed it prudent to follow the admonition of one aggravated passenger cramped behind a reclined seat back: “Put this airplane down, NOW!”

The number of reclining seat back disputes resolved by diplomatic flight attendants remains unknown but is probably a lot.

Economy class seats have been cramped for years. Anyone sitting in the middle seat knows the subtle disputes over the arm rests, which must be shared with passengers in the adjoining window and aisle seats. In the case of seat width, the passengers in the window and aisle seats have the option of scootching slightly outwards, either toward the cabin wall or into the aisle, giving the hapless middle seat passenger use of at least one arm rest.

This flexibility does not pertain to the space measured from the hinge point of the seat in front to the hinge point of the seat in back — what is known as seat pitch. When the forward seat is reclined fully, the passenger behind is wedged in; the feeling can be positively claustrophobic. It should not surprise that occupants crammed like sardines are turning on each other.

As a passenger commented:

“In most economy class seats, if the person in front of me reclines, I cannot use my fold down tray, cannot use my computer, cannot read a book or newspaper. The reclined seat takes up all the room in front of my. This is intolerable for more than an hour or so.”

On one of the three flights that landed prematurely, a passenger had locked the seat in front of him in the fully upright position, using a device known as a Knee Defender. The irate passenger whose seat was blocked from reclining threw a cup of water in the face of the passenger using the Knee Defender when he refused to remove the device.

The Knee Defender prevents the seat back in front from being reclined into the space ahead of one when the tray table is deployed

The Knee Defender prevents the seat back in front
from being reclined into the space ahead of one
when the tray table is deployed

The $22 Knee Defender consists of two plastic wedges that, when affixed at the base of the seat back in front, prevents it from reclining. According to the website where Knee Defender can be ordered:

“It helps you defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be ‘back there’.

“For those of use who have to squeeze ourselves into the limited airplane legroom space of a coach seat offered by many airlines, a seat in front us that is poised to recline is a collision waiting to happen — with our knees serving as bumpers.

“Knee Defenderâ„¢ to the rescue.”

Of course, passengers can always upgrade to Economy Plus (or variants of this moniker), in which they are afforded a greater distance between seat rows — but the seat itself remains the same.

In many cases, the Economy Plus seats are in the exit rows for emergency evacuation out the removable window panel. The extra space between seats is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so that all passengers — not just those in that row — can speedily evacuate the airplane.

On these rows, the seat backs in front do not recline, to prevent any inhibition to quick evacuation.

The obvious solution to recliner rage is to make all rows the equivalent of exit rows — more distance between rows of seats and locked recliners. This stratagem would doubtless be unacceptable to the airlines, which would lose revenue-generating seats, and to passengers who want to recline, albeit courteously.

But this recourse does not address the overall problem of seat size. Airline seats are designed for the 95th percentile of men. However, people are getting bigger, and it is estimated that about 1 in 10 passengers today find the seats too small for them. With many economy class seats measuring a scant 17 to 18 inches across, many passengers find them too snug. The widest part of the body is in the shoulders, which is why many passengers wind up shoving for arm rest space.

The FAA should initiate a study of population size to resize, as it were, the minimum seat size and spacing, both fore-and-aft and left-to-right. FlyersRights, a passenger advocacy group, argues that there is a safety dimension not being addressed in the current mania to cram more seats into airliners and fill them completely for each flight:

“We sounded the alarm on substandard seat pitch due to airlines being allowed to insert extra rows to increase profits, resulting in passengers unable to brace themselves according to the aircraft safety card. Passengers also cannot exit a plane in 90 seconds during an emergency as required by the FAA, due to lack of egress in seat rows.

“What is needed is the FAA stepping in and setting a minimum distance between airline seats…”

Assuming such an FAA study resulted in larger seats and increased pitch, the result might not be increased comfort for the passengers. The new standard would have to be embedded in regulation. Any proposed regulation would have to be published for public comment. Airline opposition to any reduction in seats would doubtless be fiercely opposed.

The sad case of child safety seats on airlines is instructive. The FAA proposed mandating them — which would have ended the unsafe practice of infants in parents’ laps. The public response was overwhelmingly favorable. Parents, medical and safety experts all weighed in favorably. Airlines were opposed. The FAA proposal died.

Until the FAA is no longer subject to the dictates of the airline industry, expect no relief on cramped seating.

How might relief be accomplished? Have Congress enact a law requiring the FAA to study seat size and pitch from a safety and comfort standpoint, and to require its findings to be implemented by the airlines within ten years. Nothing less will relieve the present cramped and disputatious economy class seating conditions.