Air Rage a Button Push Away as Fliers Fight Over Reclining Seats

Sep 03, 2014 12:01 am ET

Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) -- With airlines packing more people onto every plane, frustration among U.S. passengers is boiling into rage over nuisances as minor as a reclining seat-back taking some personal space.

Stress among fliers “is not going to go away anytime soon, and the amount of traffic we’re carrying contributes to that,” said Audrey Stone, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendants.

An on-board outburst that forced a Delta Air Lines Inc. jet to make an unscheduled landing on Sept. 1 marked the third such case in a span of nine days in the U.S. As flight-crew members see it, the mix of peak vacation-season travel and fewer empty seats can produce a combustible outcome -- and the safest course can be touching down to offload a belligerent traveler.

“The problem with people in the back who are fighting over tray tables, or fighting over cellphones or whatever, is it can escalate,” said Denny Kelly, a Dallas-based aviation accident investigator and former Braniff International Airways pilot. “The last thing you want is a brawl in the back.”

Even before the height of the U.S. travel season, the industry was packing more people onto each plane. Airlines filled an average of 85 percent of their seats in May, according to U.S. Transportation Department data. A decade earlier, the figure for May was 75 percent.

‘Hot Summer’

“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.”

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 43 percent this year through yesterday, after 2013’s 78 percent rally. The trade-off for fliers: Fewer trips with elbow room because of a vacancy in an adjoining seat.

Passengers have a right to feel irritated at the conditions in coach cabins, said Bo Corby, a senior vice president at pilot career advisory firm Future & Active Pilot Advisors.

“It’s very disturbing to try to work or eat a meal and have someone push a seat in your face,” Corby said by phone from Seattle.

Seat widths narrowed slightly in the past decade on short- range flights, to an average of about 17.2 inches (44 centimeters), from a range of 17.5 to 18 inches, said Jami Counter, senior director of SeatGuru and TripAdvisor Flights travel websites.

Elbows In

“Where you really start to feel the squeeze is on long- haul aircraft,” Counter said. “Certain airlines have crammed 10 seats across in their economy cabin on select aircraft.”

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.

Unruly passengers triggered 59 “enforcement actions” by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration through June. The 2013 total, which includes the summer season, was 167. The most was 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 Sept. 1 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, Florida, on Sept. 1 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.

Safety Concerns

The woman’s squabble with her fellow flier morphed into demands that the jet land, and she 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.

That case followed the Aug. 27 diversion of an American flight to Boston after a 61-year-old flier became upset when the seat in front of him was reclined while en route to Paris from Miami. An air marshal on board subdued and handcuffed the man, who was arrested once the aircraft landed, according to a report by the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, district attorney.

On Aug. 24, a United Airlines flight stopped 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. The two travelers argued, and one threw a cup of water on the man using the device known as a Knee Defender.