Personal responsibility: Checked in with your luggage

It seems that airline passengers are no longer expected to take responsibility for their own behavior. Check your bags at the counter and leave common sense and decency behind, too. Yes, I’m ranting about seat recline fights again, but it seemed reasonable to me given that the Boston Globe weighed in this weekend declaring:

Airlines are responsible for the problem and the solution. They need to take action because the problem is only going to get worse. Eliminate the recline feature or, at the very least, limit the amount of recline to half or less than what is allowed now.

That’s right, folks. The solution is not for people to behave like mature adults, to take responsibility for their own actions. It is for the airlines to change their operations such that it is no longer an issue. Punish everyone because a few idiots don’t know how to behave.

The Globe piece continues:

To allow a situation that so easily causes conflict to continue is jeopardizing the safety of passengers and crew alike. If airlines fail to take action, it is going to lead to more altercations.

I do agree to an extent here. The airlines can take action to help address this sudden rash of idiocy quite quickly: Start blacklisting passengers. It won’t take too many people suddenly discovering that they are no longer permitted to fly because of their short tempers – and a healthy bit of publicity of that fact was well – before everyone calms down a bit.

Or there’s a second option, proposed recently by Stephen Colbert: Start broadcasting the fights on the screens up front so at least there is some solid entertainment value delivered from the incidents.

“Airlines have to do more to turn coach conflicts into entertainment for us wealthy fliers. Why are we not getting a live feed of these aisle flights for our personal plasma screens?” — Stephen Colbert

Seriously, though, the idea that no one is held responsible for their behavior these days drives me bonkers. It is not like the airlines give absolutely zero choice to the passengers on this front. They can buy extra space (and still be a jackass there) or even select among several airlines with different amounts of space available on board in many cases. Suggesting that everyone adopt Spirit’s cabin layout is cute, I suppose. After all, the seats don’t recline. But they also have only 28 inches of pitch. That’s 2-4 inches less than the already bemoaned offerings of the other airlines today.

Pundits score points with the public by pandering to them, telling them that the big, evil airlines have ruined their travel experience. Sadly, however, that’s only a small slice of reality. And the more we, as a society, allow each other to walk away from simple decency and hide by blaming others the more we’re contributing to the problem rather than solving it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. As Ben Hughes pointed out, the airlines and seat manufacturers have their share of blame.

    There’s no good reason that I should make a choice about my comfort that impacts you.

    The problem is the seat. The seat should not allow me to affect you. How to do this? How about sliding the front of the seat forward for recline instead of tilting the back backwards. You’ll lose leg space, but now you’re only imposing upon your own comfort. It’s an easy problem to solve, though expensive. I suspect we’ll (one day) see this. I only hope it’s while I’m still alive. :/

    1. Seats with a sliding pan have been in the market for a long time. Some airlines use them today and others have retired them, usually because they are heavier and more prone to breaking.

      And that still doesn’t address the main problem: People.

      You cannot tell me that passengers with 34″ of pitch fighting with each other over reclining is the fault of the airlines. Or that a passenger assaulting a flight attendant because another passenger reclined is reasonable. Well, I guess you could. But I wouldn’t believe you.

      And the part where everyone is so keen on Spirit’s “no recline” as a solution when it cuts the pitch even tighter demonstrates that the thought process is somewhere between incomplete and wholly irrational.

      1. The question is though, who is right? The idea that people should just be nicer sounds great, but like James said, who gets to make this decision on who the space belongs to? FiveThirtyEight did a survey last week where 41% of fliers felt seat reclining was rude, so there’s clearly a major question here.

        There’s a general assumption that your rights end where mine begin. However, when this space is ambiguous, as long as you allow one person to have a negative impact on someone else’s experience, there will always be conflicts.

        I don’t want to see less pitch, but I’d gladly give up the ability for seats to recline if it means everyone getting to their destinations a little bit happier.

        1. That only gets everyone to the destination happier if no one wants to recline. And that’s clearly not the case.

          And I do not believe that this is a situation where individual “rights” are absolute. That’s part of the joy of sharing space with others. You have to learn to cooperate and compromise to get by. There are plenty of things others do which I dislike. My solution is not to start a fight with them or throw a soda at them. When that’s the response you conjure up then, to me, you’re a great candidate for needing to no longer be allowed to find yourself in such a situation.

          Blacklist a few people from flying and make a public example out of them. Everyone else will remember quite quickly how to share and cooperate. And that’s a good thing.

          I almost never recline my seat and I don’t particularly enjoy when someone reclines into me. I’ll choose a bulkhead with a bit less knee room over other rows to help my odds. But when someone in front of me does recline I don’t consider that the opening salvo in a war.

          1. I think people would forget about the ability to recline seats pretty quickly if it disappeared. I wonder how many people recline because it actually makes them more comfortable, or if they just do it because they can, or if they do it because the person in front of them did? I’m in the same camp as you in that I rarely recline. And sure, if someone in front of me reclines, it might be annoying, but I realize it’s their right to do so.

            I think we’re mostly in agreement here. I’m just skeptical about the ability of some people to compromise on this (or anything, really). I think that most people are going to act only in their own self-interest, especially when they’re around people they will never see again in their lives.

            Sure, airlines could and should blacklist disruptive passengers, but that doesn’t do anything to solve the actual issues, since there are disruptive people on both sides of the debate. Ban people all you want, but there’s still conflict as long as the question exists. There’s no such thing as sharing and cooperating when an issue is as binary as this one, unless we just make it so all of the seats are in a fixed, half-reclined state.

  2. We can talk about recline and the merits (or lack thereof) until we’re blue in the face, but Seth is spot on. It’s obvious there’s no real solution to the “recline problem,” so the interim solution is that we all behave like adults and act rationally should a problem arise.

    Ban passengers who cause problems. People only act like savages because they’re allowed to get away with it. If you’re willing to get into an altercation in midair over something as simple as seat recline, you probably have no place in civilized society anyway.

  3. Go to the standup seats (no recline there)! And herd more people into less space while you’re at it – that helps, right?

    People do need to learn how to behave AND be considerate of others. Do unto others as you would have done unto you – you know, the golden rule.

    Would you want someone to recline in your space to the point that you cannot get out to pee or move? Recline into your knees to the point where you were very uncomfortable or injured during the flight? Make you a bobblehead or pulled your hair because they used your seat as a leveraging point to stand up or sit down? Force you hold on to everything on the tray table because the person kept hanging the recline pitch (jerking in the process)? Or, the more controversial one because we have RIGHTS – wear cologne or perfume and make you miserable/sick on the flight? No, you would not.

    But because YOU paid for a ticket, YOU should be able to do whatever YOU want to do – no matter what the impact is to others. And if someone reacts, THEY are the bad guy. I think we are too quick to only place the blame on people with short tempers. Yes, they need to learn to control their responses, but the passenger pitching back with reckless abandon and doing other acts that are inconsiderate of others around them are not innocent either – stop acting like they are!

    The airlines have squeezed more and more seats on the plane, and have asked us to just accept it. And because it is too hard to fight the airlines that are “too big to fail”, we resign ourselves to whatever they do to us. They too, have a role in this issue and I think people on this blog are too quick to dismiss the airlines’ responsibility in the matter because you feel powerless to fix it.

    Everyone has a part in making the flying experience good for everyone. It is about time that everyone act accordingly.

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