Don’t Lean on Me, Please

The latest “air war” is not over Iraq or Syria or Gaza. It’s along commercial air lanes all over the world.

Last Sunday, a United Airlines Newark-to-Denver flight had to make an emergency landing in Chicago when a fight broke out because a passenger clipped a device to his tray table to prevent the person in front of him from reclining. Angry words were exchanged, the passenger in front threw a glass of water at the passenger in back, and both were escorted off the plane in Chicago.

The altercation has prompted an international conversation about the “right” to recline versus the “right” to sit without being crushed by the reclining passenger  in front of you.

The issue is not likely to go away with the press of a button. The publicity has sent sales of the anti-reclining gadget, called the Knee Defender, soaring sky high. If more travelers take it on board with them, more tempers are likely to flare.

Reclining passengers claim they have paid for the right to tip their seats back, which the airlines clearly permit. Aggrieved passengers claim that they have paid too, and are entitled not to be squeezed by a recliner. The Knee Defender levels the playing field, they say, giving the passenger in back a way to counter the recliner’s privilege. He is no longer at the mercy of another’s creature comfort.

But it’s going too far to claim, as Ira Goldman, the Washington-based inventor of the gadget does, that “it gives you the chance to be human beings.”

Presumably he means to say that it puts passengers on an equal footing: you can tilt back, but I can push back. Now you have to respect my rights as a human being.

What it actually gives you is the chance to fight back. You no longer need to plead with another passenger or with the flight personnel for consideration of your riding comfort. You can stop the other fellow from bothering you.

But does that make us more human? Of course it’s human to want to fight back. We can sympathize with the passenger in back who’s being squeezed into a tiny space for an hours-long journey by someone who insists on the full angle of comfort, no matter how much discomfort it causes his fellow human being. We’ve been there.

But is this an aspect of our humanity that should be encouraged? We think not.

The status quo forces one either to accept some discomfort silently, or to talk to the reclining person in front, asking for consideration. As Chazal teach us, it is the faculty of speech that sets us above the animals, not the ability to fight back.

If that doesn’t help, one can complain to the crew, or ask for a change of seat.

To a large extent, questions about Goldman’s device are moot. United Airlines and other carriers do not allow it, for the very reason that it leads to fights. It upsets the status quo, interfering with the recognized right of all passengers to tilt their seats back.

Some have suggested legislating morality, or good middos, in a novel way: Airlines could solve the problem by declaring themselves Reclinists or Knee Savers, and passengers could choose which airline to fly based on that (or at least would know what to expect on board). A less dramatic solution would be to designate cabin sections for reclining or non-reclining, much like smoking and non-smoking sections.

But there may be technical obstacles to this idea that haven’t been thought of yet. Or it could be objected that it’s just the tip of a slippery slope of special sections: for smokers and non-smokers, for recliners and non-recliners, for mobile phone users and non-users, for… ?

One militant anti-recliner expostulated: “Do not recline your seat. Ever. Congress should pass a law that all economy-class airplane seats must be welded into a permanently upright position, no exceptions.”

It doesn’t sound like a strong legislative prospect, but who knows? Some people thought an attempt to ban sugary drinks would never happen.

In the meantime, we agree with the statement issued by Mr. Paul Flannigan, a spokesman for American Airlines:

“As for which customer has the ‘right,’ I think what we can say is that the in-flight experience is much better when passengers are courteous to each other and flight crews.”