Spats Over Reclining Seats Put Focus on Air Rage in Packed Jets

Sep 02, 2014 3:22 pm ET

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- A trio of recent air-rage cases linked to reclining seats shows frustrations are simmering on U.S. jetliners as passengers find themselves surrounded by more and more people.

Fuller planes are driving “an uptick in disruptions in the cabin,” Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union, said today. She spoke after a Delta Air Lines Inc. jet touched down yesterday in Jacksonville, Florida, to let the instigator of a squabble off the plane.

The Delta incident marked the third time in a span nine days that an on-board outburst over personal space forced an unscheduled landing in the U.S. As flight-crew members see it, the mix of peak vacation-season travel and fewer empty seats can sometimes produce a combustible outcome.

“Every summer, with the load factor, you’re obviously going to see some tension out there,” said Tom Hoban, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association at American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s biggest carrier. “It’s a long, hot summer.”

Even before the onset of the U.S. summer, the industry packed more people onto each plane in every month this year through May, when airlines filled an average of 85 percent of their seats, according to U.S. Transportation Department data. A decade earlier, the figure for May was 75 percent.

Airlines’ Comeback

Matching seating capacity to travel demand has been a pillar of U.S. airlines’ rebound from $58 billion in losses during nine years ended in 2009. The Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index soared 38 percent this year through Aug. 29, after 2013’s 78 percent rally. The trade-off for fliers: Fewer trips with a bit more elbow room because of a vacancy in an adjoining seat.

Passenger disturbances worldwide occurred at a rate of one for every 1,300 flights from 2010 through 2013, according to the International Air Transport Association trade group. IATA has urged governments to change their aviation protocols to make it easier to charge offenders and for airlines to recoup costs for a diverted flight.

“I can tell you that it is a serious problem,” said Perry Flint, an IATA spokesman in Washington.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration logged 59 “enforcement actions” involving unruly passengers this year through June. Last year’s total, which includes the busy summer season, was 167. The tally peaked at 330 in 2004, according to FAA reporting that dates to 1995.

‘Inappropriate Action’

“Often times these are fueled by alcohol,” said John Cox, a former commercial airline pilot who is chief executive officer of consultant Safety Operating Systems in Washington. “They’re in a confined space, you don’t have people reacting in a normal way. You have all the ingredients for inappropriate action and sometimes it happens.”

The FAA’s cases reflect reports to the agency by flight- crew members, and exclude violations that may be reported to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

The U.S. incidents spanning Aug. 24 through yesterday all involved passengers upset at reclining seat-backs, according to police and airline accounts.

Delta Flight 2370 to West Palm Beach, Florida, from New York landed at Jacksonville yesterday after a 32-year-old passenger resting her head on a tray table became angered when she was struck after the person in the row ahead reclined backward, according to a police report.

The woman argued with her fellow flier and grew more upset when attendants tried to calm her, according to the report. She eventually demanded that the jet land and became combative “to the point that they were concerned for the safety of themselves and passengers,” the report said. She was taken off and later released by Jacksonville Aviation Authority police.

Boston Diversion

An American flight to Paris from Miami diverted to Boston on Aug. 27 after a 61-year-old flier became upset when the seat in front of him was reclined, according to a report by the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, district attorney. The passenger grew more irate when a crew member tried to calm him, following that person down the aisle and grabbing him by the arm, according to the report.

An air marshal on board subdued and handcuffed the man, who was arrested once the aircraft landed.

On Aug. 24, United Airlines Flight 1462 had to touch down in Chicago en route to Denver from Newark, New Jersey, after a passenger installed a device that prevented the person in front of him from leaning back, said Charlie Hobart, a spokesman for United Continental Holdings Inc. The two travelers argued, and one threw a cup of water on the man using the device known as a Knee Defender.

-0- Sep/02/2014 19:22 GMT