Who owns the space between airline seats – you or the passenger in front of you?
It’s not an academic question for a traveler like Dean Burri. At 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, he can hardly debate the finer points of law with a passenger in front of him who leans back.
“I make a quick yell when they recline and say something like, ‘Hey, that won’t work – those are my knees,’” he says. “They usually don’t argue.”
But in this summer season of overbooked flights and scarce seat pitch, not everyone is being cooperative, particularly if they’re in front of someone less persuasive than Burri. So frustrated air travelers are fighting back.
Kicking back, to be exact.
Maura Kayal, a bruised passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight, first brought this jarring trend to my attention. A traveler “forcefully kicked the back of my chair” when she tried to recline on a recent trip, Kayal reported.
I asked around and found out that her punting passenger incident wasn’t an isolated case. More than ever, people are getting pushed, booted or nudged in the derriere by fellow travelers.
The most common – and least offensive – variety of this is the simple blocking maneuver. Jim McDonough, a 6-foot-1 computer programmer from Richardson, Texas, says he places his knees “firmly against the seat in front of me” to prevent someone from leaning into what he considers his personal space. “Most of the time they just think the seat doesn’t recline,” he says.
Next is the nudge. Being slightly more than 6-foot-1 myself, I’ve experienced this a time or two during the last few months. Once, a woman sitting behind me decided I wasn’t entitled to lean my seat back at all, even though the person in front of me had decided to recline completely, so she kneed me in the spine at regular intervals until I surrendered my seat to its upright position.
Finally, there’s the violent outburst that Kayal experienced. Strictly speaking, they could be classified as bona fide air rage incidents, exacerbated, perhaps, by luggage problems or delayed flights. But mostly, it’s the fact that standard economy-class seats – except for those in the back and near emergency exits, which don’t go back at all – recline by about 18 degrees. That translates into as little as 26 inches of wiggle room for the seat behind you, which is almost enough to leave anyone kicking mad.
“The question I’ve never been able to get answered regarding seat kickers is this one: Does the person behind you have a right to demand that you not put your seat back?” asks Ron Lieber, a magazine writer who lives in Brooklyn. “Whose space is it, anyway?”
Good question. There are no hard and fast rules regarding the personal space on commercial aircraft. The United States government regulates the seats in emergency exit rows, but other than that, Uncle Sam is laissez faire when it comes to leg room.
So is the Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing the major U.S. airlines. The Washington-based group does not have a formal policy regarding the allotment of personal space to economy-class passengers, nor has it issued any guidelines for mediating seating-related disputes between travelers.
“We let our members decide what to do on a case-by case basis,” says ATA spokeswoman Diana Cronan.
“It depends on whether I’m the guy leaning back or whether I’m the guy with the knees,” jokes Allan McArtor, president of the startup Legend Airlines. It’s easy for him to laugh, since his airline seats features a generous 46 inches of pitch, thereby eliminating the kneeing problem.
“I suppose when you’re paying $1,500 per ticket and sitting in economy class, you can get pretty jealous about the space,” he adds. “I think if I were to side with anyone, it would be with the guy with the knees. If there’s someone behind you with long legs, you shouldn’t lean back, out of courtesy.”
In a previous column, I suggested that airlines ought to lock the seats in the upright position and be done with it. By scrapping the “sit back, relax and enjoy the flight” nonsense and bolting the seats at 35 degrees we’d at least eliminate the seat-pounding problems.
For anyone concerned about getting drawn into these midair melees over space, the locked steerage seats would be good news.
“Right now it seems as though the recliners have the rights and the workers are out of luck,” says Virginia Dudley, a Denver computer consultant. “When someone reclines their seat, I can’t open my laptop on my tray.”
But will the carriers ever stop the dreaded “domino effect” in the main cabin? Probably not. Seat kicking hasn’t become enough of a problem to warrant any action – after all, it hasn’t interfered with an airline’s ability to make money yet.
If it ever does, I’m sure my modest proposal to end the reclining seats will be implemented. On the double.
How to prevent yourself from becoming a seat “kicking” victim – and what to do if you feel like booting the passenger in front of you?
- Ask before you lean back.
- If the answer is no, try to find a seat with no one behind it.
- If the answer is yes, don’t lean back all the way.
- If someone leans into your personal space, tell him or her – politely.
- No response? Then try to move to a seat with more legroom.
- If that’s not possible, call a flight attendant and ask for help.
- Still not happy? Then take names and contact the service desk after landing.
- Avoid kicking or kneeing the passenger in front of you, even if you feel it’s deserved.