I wrote Who’s to Blame for the Reclining Seat Fights for Conde Nast Traveler. It appeared on their website September 2, 2014.
Recently, a reporter contacted me to find out if flight attendants were purposefully not getting involved in the war against reclined seats. It’s no surprise that the media is focusing on the crew’s role in the recent passenger spats over reclining seats: Is the crew doing enough to keep passengers calm? Are they overreacting? Did they really need to divert that flight? But I’m sick of being the seat recline police.
Passengers misbehaving on airplanes are not new. I’ve seen plenty of problematic passengers in the 18 years that I’ve been a flight attendant; if it’s not the food, it’s the lack of food, and if it’s not that, it might be that a seat is too small, and on and on. On my last flight a woman sat plugging her nose for an entire flight because she didn’t like the way the elderly woman beside her smelled. The point is it’s always something.
(This is where I should probably point out that 90 percent of these problems come from 10 percent of the people. Problem passengers tend to have a lot of problems, which they make known early on a flight.)
In both recent instances of flight interruptions over reclining seats, I assume the situation had to have been pretty bad to divert a flight. It’s expensive to land an aircraft at a different airport, and no one makes that decision lightly. After all, nobody wants to be blamed for costing the company money, and nobody wants to go in on a day off to discuss the possibility. (I wonder if taking out a row of seats is worth a few unscheduled landings each week.)
And sometimes, flight attendants may be too scared to make that call. Early in my career, I nearly had to divert a flight due to passenger misconduct. The captain asked if I wanted to, but I was a brand new flight attendant and scared to death of getting in trouble. Who was I to take responsibility for an airplane to make an unscheduled landing? I thought the pilot should make the call; he did, and we did not divert. (I still think we should have.)