Tight Squeezes, Angry Passengers: Behind the Frustration in the Air

With space shrinking on flights, reports of plane diversions have increased in recent weeks. Flight attendant groups blame the tighter quarters, but the airline industry says getting more people on board helps keep flights reasonably priced.

The guy who used the “Knee Defender” on a recent flight says he wasn’t being the big jerk he was made out to be.

James Beach, who used the device to prevent the passenger in front of him from reclining her seat, said that in the argument that followed, he complied with flight attendant orders at first, only to have the other passenger attempt to damage his laptop by slamming on the recliner and throwing soda at him.

“It was really just surreal and shocking. Did that just happen?” he told the Associated Press. “I said, ‘I hope you brought your checkbook, because you just threw your Sprite all over my $2,000 laptop.'”

No matter what exactly happened, the incident highlights a growing problem for the airline industry: What to do when passengers get unruly? Earlier this year, the International Air Transport Association—whose members dealt with roughly 8,000 unruly passenger incidents in 2013—called on governments, airports, and airlines to take a firm stance against passenger disruption.

Beach and his unnamed assailant aren’t alone in the news: In the past week alone, two other flights were diverted after passengers began arguing over reclining seats. The problem is becoming a big headache for airline groups.

What’s happening Here?

Officials for flight attendant groups point to two causes for the rising tensions: the warm weather and extra-crowded planes, which have become more cramped as airlines have added rows of seats.

A Bloomberg report notes, within the past decade, seats on short-range flights have narrowed to a width of 17.2 inches, down from 17.5 to 18 inches. And some airlines are improving amenities for first-class customers by cramping the people in coach.

“Seats are getting closer together,” Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson told the AP this week. “We have to de-escalate conflict all the time.”

Nelson says her group has recommended that attendants follow airline policy regarding when to divert a flight.

The Airlines’ Perspective

The airline industry, represented by Airlines for America (A4A), emphasizes that getting more passengers on planes keeps flying within reach for most people.

“Planes are more full, a reflection of the fact that flying remains affordable,” A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina told The Los Angeles Times. “Fuller flights in turn help keep flying more affordable.”

Nonetheless, airlines are working to improve conditions for people in coach, doing small things to help add room even as they add seats, such as shrinking the size of cushions or moving the location of the magazine holders.

And, of course, as Vox writer Matthew Yglesias sarcastically pointed out last week, you can always pay a few more bucks for additional leg room.

Some airlines have taken to moving the magazine pouch to add some extra legroom. (Hemera/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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