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Reaction Time: Ridiculous, Reprehensible Recliner Rage

Ariana Aboulafia |
September 29, 2014 | 8:36 p.m. PDT


"Recliner rage" is the latest manifestation of American self-indulgence. (Jacinta Quesada/Wikimedia Commons)
"Recliner rage" is the latest manifestation of American self-indulgence. (Jacinta Quesada/Wikimedia Commons)
An airplane can be a tense, awkward place.

After all, flying basically traps you in a giant aluminum cylinder hurtling through the air at who-knows-how-many miles per hour with hundreds of strangers, at least one of whom at any given time is crying, screaming, laughing, talking too loudly, chewing too loudly or snoring. You know, being human. 

Although flying can often be an uncomfortable experience, recently some people have had experiences that are way worse than normal after their planes were forced to land partway through their flights. In early September, in fact, there were three flight diversions in nine days; and in each instance, the flight was not landed due to mechanical issues, captain concerns or crew safety, but rather due to the latest fad in airplane entitlement: recliner rage.

Recliner rage is the term being used to describe various altercations that have taken place throughout the past month on airplanes as a result of one person reclining into another person’s legroom. While in most normal circumstances someone reclining their seat in front of you on an airplane may be slightly annoying (particularly if, let’s say, you happen to be a larger person that may require more room), recently this annoyance has exploded into exactly what the term implies: full-out rage. 

Early in September, a flight from New York to Palm Beach, Florida made an emergency landing in Jacksonville after two passengers got into a loud, profanity-riddled altercation after one passenger reclined her seat into the other, who had been attempting to sleep on the tray table.

Less than a week prior, a passenger flying from Miami to Paris also became enraged when the person in front of him reclined their seat, and became physical with a flight attendant after the attendant attempted to investigate the issue. This flight, too, had to divert to Boston (after the passenger was apprehended by an air marshal) so that the passenger could be removed.

Several days before that, a flight traveling from New Jersey to Denver made an unscheduled landing in Chicago after two passengers got into a heated argument (which ended when one passenger threw water in the other passenger’s face) over -- you guessed it -- recliners. In this particular case, a passenger attempted to recline her seat and found that she was unable to because the passenger behind her had been using a “locking” device that physically prevents airline seats from reclining. The device is called the “Knee Defender” and although it is banned on most major airlines, it is not banned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is easily available online.  

There are so many issues with this, it’s hard to know where to start. 

But let’s go ahead and start with the “Knee Defender.” A quick search of the product brings you to a website called “Gadget Duck,” which claims to bring users “a number of good products.” The page for the “Knee Defender” describes the product as a “lightweight, pocket-sized, all-plastic” device that helps you “gain some protection for your knees when there is no airplane legroom space to spare but you may be dealing with an aggressive seat recliner.” Its sales pitch continues: “Whether you are intent on protecting yourself from being crunched, want to maintain enough leg room to do some in-seat exercises because of health concerns -– such as Deep Vein Thrombosis –- or you just want some warning so you can move your notebook computer out of the way before the seat is reclined, Knee Defender works like a charm.”

The website even provides possible customers with “courtesy cards” that they can print and hand to people sitting in front of them, explaining that the person behind them is using a Knee Defender and that they will not be able to recline their seats. It also suggests that in the event that these passengers are upset about someone behind them using a Knee Defender, they should complain to the airline so that “together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers.” 

Unfortunately, the Knee Defender courtesy card fails to explain to passengers the only real reason why someone would use this device on an airplane: because they are an entitled jerk.

Entitlement, in fact, is the root cause of all of these “reclining” issues. People feel that, when on an airplane, they are entitled to a certain amount of space, comfort and perhaps consideration from other passengers. On the one hand, it is easy to see why people feel this way -- after all, flying is expensive, and after paying so much to fly it is reasonable to expect that airlines will provide passengers with a positive experience. Or is it? Flying at its core is an uncomfortable experience; it is boring, it is often cramped and it might be too hot or too cold, among other things. Furthermore, flying is a privilege and is not something that we are entitled to simply by virtue of our status as humans or simply because we can afford it. You don’t get to fly if you’re a threat to others, nor do you have the right to inconvenience thousands of people (by “demanding” or causing a plane’s emergency landing) just because you were not able to recline your seat. 

I think it is important to recognize here that there is no evidence that “recliner rage” is something that is striking millennials (the generation that is perhaps most-often criticized for being overly-entitled) disproportionally, or even at all. Entitlement, in general, needs to be viewed as less of a “millennial” issue and more of an American issue. All of us, not just young people, live in a society rife with instant gratification: we expect instant food, instant replies to our messages and instant solutions to our problems. Furthermore, we are obsessed with our own comfort – we feel the need to immediately quell any second of emotional or physical displeasure and will go to any length to do so, even if that means overmedicating or overspending. Nowhere is this more visible than in the airline industry, where passengers can spend money on extra legroom (getting up and walking around is for peasants, after all), extra blankets (wouldn’t want you to get cold), extra films or games (being bored is also for peasants), extra snacks, extra drinks, extra pillows, extra headphones and the list goes on. People often criticize the airline industry for “nickel and diming” customers, but with so many customers so willing to pay, can you really blame them? The airline industry will never serve as our wake-up call to our destructive entitlement and self-obsession (after all, they are profiting immensely off of it); rather, we need to examine our own behavior, realize when we are acting self-indulgent and exercise some self-control.          

Although the ideological solution to “recliner rage” (and probably to many other issues plaguing society) is to end our self-obsession and entitlement, that is not very realistic. What may be more realistic is to ask the FAA to step up. According to a statement by an FAA spokesperson, “The FAA discourages the use of any device that alters the performance of any part of an airplane”. Clearly, though, that discouragement is pretty weak and isn’t doing anything to stop usage of the Knee Defender. Although this device is admittedly only one of many aspects of “recliner rage,” perhaps prohibiting its usage (and the usage of any other device that, as the FAA says, alters the performance of any part of an airplane) would provide at least a partial practical solution.

“Recliner rage,” when taken too far, becomes more than just an inconvenience: it’s a safety issue for passengers and flight crews alike, and needs to be treated as such. In the case of non-device related “recliner rage,” perhaps it is necessary for passengers to simply accept that flying may not be the best experience, and to grin and bear it. Perhaps when it comes to flying, it is only the destination that matters and not the journey.

Perhaps if you think flying is that bad you should drive or take a train, bus or boat instead.

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Contact columnist Ariana Aboulafia here; follow her here



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