Last February I wrote a blog post about the man who sat behind me on a seventeen-hour international flight (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Toronto, Canada) and refused to let me recline my seat. The post generated a good amount of traffic and fiercely opinionated comments, both in support of my right to recline and in support of his right to leg space.

airplane legroom

This week a United Airlines flight had to be diverted (Newark to Denver, diverted to Chicago) after a fight broke out between two passengers. A man used the Knee Defender to prevent the seat in front from reclining. The passenger in front demanded he remove the device, he refused. The flight attendant demanded he remove it (though not banned by the FAA, the device is not allowed on United Airlines flights), he refused. The female passenger threw a cup of water in his face. The plane diverted, both were kicked off, and continued on its merry (and delayed) way.

Who was right? Was I right to be angry that I couldn’t recline for seventeen hours? Or was the man behind me right to defend his leg room?

In my situation, he reclined his own seat. He also refused to acknowledge me during the entire flight. He wouldn’t meet my eye, didn’t politely explain that he had long legs, didn’t engage in any constructive way.

My father is 6’3” and says that every time he boards a plane (he rides economy class), he speaks with the person in front of him. He says, “I’m a big guy. I know you will want to recline your seat and you have every right to do so. All I ask is that you please inform me before reclining so that I can adjust my legs and my tray table.”

He says he has never had a problem. Not only that but most times, the passenger in front doesn’t end up reclining.

I tend to believe that people are generally reasonable and that when this kind of conversation happens, both sides can be gracious. But in my opinion, refusing to discuss the recline or slipping on a sneaky device without discussing it will only serve to bring out the fury in already exhausted and stressed passengers.

Perhaps a reasonable suggestion might be that on overnight flights or when you are traveling with an infant on your lap or when your legs are longer than average, passengers simply have a discussion with people in front or behind. Flying can bring out the worst in everyone, I know. I’ve been on thirty and forty hour journeys (departing for yet another one in less than 24 hours). With three young children. But I don’t think it is asking too much for the adults among us to behave like adults which might mean not throwing water in faces, not growling and shaking seats, but simply having a conversation.

What do you think? Do passengers have a right to recline? A right to refuse to be reclined into?

*image via Flickr