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Battle at 30,000 Feet: Seat Reclining vs. Leg Room

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I just read a story that struck a chord with me. The AP reported that on Sunday, a fight broke out between two passengers over leg room on a United Airlines flight from Newark  that caused the flight to be diverted. A man utilized a Knee Defender,  a gadget that attaches to your tray table and prevents the person in front of you from reclining. When the woman seated in front of him tried to recline her chair, conflict ensued.

Now, I don’t know exactly how these people treated one another, but I’m on the side of the woman who wanted to recline her seat. I believe that seat blockers should not be sold, and that a passenger who brings one onto a plane is asking for a fight.

Seat recliners vs. passengers of height - the in-flight battle rages on
Seat recliners vs. passengers of height: the in-flight battle rages on

Some people call me a snob for flying primarily in business or first class. That is, until they see me. I’m 6’7,” and frankly, normal coach seats were not made for “passengers of height.”  My worst nightmare is an ultra-long-haul flight in a middle seat in coach with people reclining into the precious little space that I have, leaving me trapped and unable to move.

Luckily, I know how to maximize my miles, points and credit cards, so I generally travel around the world in the lap of luxury, scoring lie-flat seats for long-haul flights to far-flung destinations – and my knees always thank me for it.

Some of my journeys in first class (clockwise from top left): Emirates, both lying down and seated; Korean Air; and Lufthansa
Some of my long-haul journeys in first class (clockwise from top left): Emirates, both lying down and seated; Korean Air; and Lufthansa

Early on in my experience as a traveler, my 6’3″ road warrior dad taught me that getting the exit row or bulkhead is critical. Since my formative days, I’ve made it a point to lear all the tips and tricks to get myself there, from smiling at a gate agent and asking nicely (while standing on my tippy toes to make myself seem gigantic) to identifying a better seat in coach as I board, and switching to it once the cabin door is shut.

However, I’ve been stuck in a terrible seat (usually when airplanes are swapped at the last minute or I’m rebooked due to a weather/mechanical cancellation), in which case I tend to wait until I can get onto a flight with a better seat. When this isn’t possible, though, I always opt to deal with a few hours worth of discomfort rather than spending a night stranded. In a case like this, I pray that the person in front of me won’t recline their seat, but I certainly understand if they ignore my silent pleas.

Two tales of my legs in KLM's Economy Comfort: bulkhead (at left)...and not bulkhead.
Two versions of my leg room in KLM’s Economy Comfort: bulkhead (at right)…and not bulkhead.

In the case of this recent in-flight brawl, I’d urge the guy with the recline-blocking gadget to get a grip. Both of these passengers were already in United’s Economy Plus section, where seats allow six inches more leg room than the carrier’s standard coach seats. If you need more space than Economy Plus, then you should learn how to get discounted and/or upgraded, or simply buy yourself a business or first class seat.

On a multi-hour flight, I feel a passenger should have the right to recline. In fact, during a recent American Airlines flight from Miami to Recife, Brazil, I was booked in a non-reclining seat, and when I followed up to complain that my expectation as a passenger  is having a seat that does recline, I received a 15,000-mile bonus from American for my trouble. Why did this United passenger feel it was his right to control who gets to recline and who doesn’t?

Even the small amount of recline allowed by a Delta Economy Comfort seat could be the difference between a comfy flight - and an uncomfortable one.
Even the small amount of recline allowed by a Delta Economy Comfort seat could be the difference between a comfy flight – and an uncomfortable one.

Overall, this is a story of entitlement and greed – people wanting something without paying for it, then passive-aggressively “stealing” someone else’s perk (in this case, recline space) for their own enjoyment.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that it’s vital that we all try to be good citizens in the air – no matter how tall or short we may be.

To better prepare yourself for the potential discomfort of long-haul flights in coach and to learn how to get better seats on an airplane, please take a look at these previous TPG posts. Wishing you great flights in the future!

What's your take on this in-flight kerfuffle? Whose side are you on?

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Related Posts:

17 Tips for Surviving a Long Flight in Coach
How Am I Going To Survive 21 Hours In Coach?
My Top 10 Long-haul Flight Survival Kit Items

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