"Knee Defender" battle puts blame on passengers

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

In a little over a week recently, three flights made unscheduled landings delaying and disrupting hundreds of travelers and their plans when passengers battled over the right to recline their seats. The most highly publicized incident occurred when a passenger on a United flight clamped a $22 gizmo called the Knee Defender—okay in the eyes of the Federal Aviation Administration but prohibited by United, a  company spokesman told us—to his tray table to prevent the person in front of him from reclining his seatback. When the passenger ignored a flight attendant’s instructions to remove the gadget, the woman in the row ahead doused him with a cup of water.

The second conflict, on an American flight, occurred when a passenger became enraged (to the point of being taken into custody) after his leg room was compromised by a reclining seat during a Miami to Paris trip. The third incident took place on a Delta jetliner on Labor Day, when a woman boiled over after getting clunked in the head by a backward-moving seat while she was resting on the tray table.

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There’s no denying the increased stress associated with flying given terror warnings, long security lines, probing TSA agents, diminishing overhead bin space, and long delays. But what’s causing passengers to act out rather than simply fume, roll their eyes, and hem and haw under their breath?

For one, more passengers are being jammed into fewer flights, according to the Bureau of transportation statistics. The airlines are largely to blame precisely because they’re shoehorning more of people into tighter and tighter spaces, says a travel industry expert and Consumer Reports consultant, William McGee.

For one way to start your trip with a good attitude, read Luggage tips that will make you a happier flier. 

In recent years, most U.S. airlines have decided to reduce "seat pitch"—the distance between rows—in economy/coach sections.  In many cases, the existing knee room is inadequate for some passengers, McGhee says, even with seats fully upright. "The last I checked, the seat pitch on Spirit Airlines was 28 inches, which is simply cruel," he said. While no one can excuse inappropriate behavior, McGhee says that the airlines' policies, in an attempt to make more money, are at the root of this problem. At the same time, they advertise their reclining seats.

Others agree. “We'd like to see the airlines pay more attention to passenger comfort, and not pit passenger against passenger in the fight for leg room," Ellen Bloom, Consumer Reports' senior director of federal policy, said.  “I do not believe a passenger's right to recline trumps another passenger's right to have their personal space violated, which at its worst can lead to extreme discomfort or even deep vein thrombosis."

Bloom goes on to say that she is disturbed by media reports that frame these battles as problems between passengers, when in fact it's a no-win scenario deliberately created by the airlines. "It's like building a swing set in the middle of the street and then acting surprised when kids get hit by cars," she said.

Consumer Reports contacted several airlines and organizations such as International Air Transport Association and Association of Flight Attendants for comment on the issue and tips on how to diffuse other potentially incendiary incidents. We didn’t get very far. So here's our own common-sense advice.

• You can’t control the actions of others, only your own. People do things all the time that drive us crazy, but that’s no excuse to lose your cool. When someone annoys us, we have a choice: retaliate, address the issue reasonably, or walk away. If sensibility fails, choose the latter. It’s not always easy, but take a deep breath and ask yourself if it’s worth going to war over every annoyance. Being a hothead can only get you in hot water.

• Be civil. Good manners and a smile can avoid conflict in the first place or minimize the fallout. Think how you would react if the passenger immediately in front of you flung his or her seatback into your face? If you’re the one doing the reclining, turn around and tell your fellow flyer that you plan to recline your seat, and make the move gently. If you’re on the receiving end, politely tap the person on the shoulder or arm and say “excuse me, but I’d like to use my laptop or tablet,” and ask if they can elevate their seatback even slightly. And if the person complies, be sure to say thanks.

• Practice border control. Armrests are a common source of conflict. Ideally, passengers should share the space. But often a turf war erupts and one person commandeers the lion’s share. When that happens, speak up and explain that there’s room for the both of you. Sometimes, people demand space for spite—simply because they think it’s unfair for one person to dominate the armrest. I usually defer to the person in the middle seat. It’s tough enough to be stuck in that awful location, so I feel I’ve done a good deed by ceding some territory.

• Tune out, turn on. Noise can be a big problem on many flights. There are loud, nonstop talkers, crying children, assorted sounds from games on computers, and mobile phones. An airplane isn’t a soundproof booth. If a gentle request to turn it down falls on deaf ears, it’s a good idea to have a good pair of noise canceling headphones. Subscribers can check out Consumer Reports’ latest Ratings.

• Ask a flight attendant for help. Most of us dislike confrontation, which can make it difficult to stand your ground. But you don’t have to angrily put up with sticky situations. Signal a flight attendant if you’re uncomfortable addressing issues such as a boozy neighbor who’s slumping into your space, a passenger who insists on chowing down on stinky food, removes his or her socks, is in need of a bath, or balks at rising when you need to use the restroom. Passengers that sneeze or cough into the air are just plain rude, as are parents who refuse to discipline their child for kicking your seat. If a mild scolding from the attendant fails, ask to be relocated to an empty seat. The crew might even be willing to move you into business or first class for your trouble as no cost or for a modest upgrade. And if you complain loud enough and document your experience, you might get a voucher for a discount on a future trip or extra miles.

—Tod Marks

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