Close Encounters of the Worst Kind

Airlines packing in passengers and profits

Posted Sep 16, 2014

I sympathize with the frequent flyer who caused an uproar by using a "Knee Defender," a $22 device that attaches to a tray table and prevents the person in front from reclining more than a few inches. I also pity the cabin attendants who have to referee road rage at 38,000 feet, and the pilots who are forced to make unscheduled stops to remove unruly passengers.

So, who's at fault in these encounters? I blame the airlines, and the problem is money-driven. They are racking up billions in record profits -- 3.8 billion during the first half of 2014 alone -- while charging a fee for everything that used to be included in the price of a ticket. The bottom line? We are getting less and less in the way of comfort and service for more and more of our money.

But let's be fair. Much can be blamed on Homeland Security and post-9/11 hysteria which, all these years later, still requires passengers to be at the airport two hours ahead of departure, there to be subjected to long, slow lines, intrusive searches and screenings. Is it any wonder that travelers are stressed out and cranky by the time they board the aircraft? 

We have all been conditioned to the dog-eat-dog experience that follows, especially on airlines that have unreserved seating. It becomes a contest of wills to see who can get on board first, find space in the overhead bin, and get seated. 

Ah, but once the wheels have left the ground, you can finally relax. And when the plane reaches its cruising altitude, you can even have a cocktail from the drinks cart, for half again what it would cost you on the ground, and assuming that you have the correct form of payment. (Credit cards only.) 

So you have purchased your drink, got out your computer, and begun to catch up on some business when the seat in front of you suddenly comes flying back, spilling your drink and slamming shut your laptop. What do you do then? Most of us don't do anything but suffer in silence. We know that passengers are allowed to recline their seats, and some do it to the maximum. For the record, I never recline mine more than a couple of inches, because more than that, I feel, is rude and inconsiderate.

In three separate incidents, all within a few days of one another, tempers flared and resulted in confrontations between passengers over reclining seats, and pilots chose to set those flights down at the nearest airport. A spokesman for one airline said that the decision to divert is up to the crew, which must determine whether the person is likely to cause harm to others or might even have terrorist intentions.

The first involved the man who used the Knee Defender and had a glass of soda thrown in his face for it. But it's interesting to note that he and the woman who threw it were sitting in the Economy Plus section, which boasts four more inches of legroom than regular Economy, at a cramped 31 inches. The next was a Frenchman who took offense at being reclined upon. (It might have been his first time on a U.S. carrier. In my experience, European airlines in general are more accommodating.) The third involved a woman who got bonked on her head, which was resting on a tray table.

Are we, as human beings, becoming less tolerant of one another? Or is our patience just pushed to the limit when we are packed in like sardines so that the airlines can add more seats -- and more profit? Not only legroom but elbow room is shrinking. New seats are thinner and narrower. Delta has even installed smaller toilets in order to squeeze in another row of seats, and JetBlue cut one inch of legroom from each row in Coach to accommodate lie-flat beds in First Class on its transcontinental flights. (Now, that sounds like the way to go -- if you can afford it!)  

Only one carrier that I know of, Spirit Airlines, has seats that do not recline. Why can't the others offer the same simple solution to the problem?

About the Author

E. E. Smith is a playwright and book author. Her new series of murder mysteries debuted in 2013. The first is titled Death by Misadventure. 

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