On a Sunday night flight from Washington, D.C., to Ghana, a passenger reclined his seat a little too close to the lap of the man sitting behind him. The man retaliated by slapping the head of the passenger in front of him, and, ultimately, a fistfight ensued. The pilot turned the jet around, and two F-16s were scrambled to escort the flight back to Washington.
"Reclining the seats is a major issue," says Scott McCartney, who writes The Middle Seat Terminal blog and column for the Wall Street Journal. "You have very limited space. If you want to work on your laptop and the person in front of you reclines, you may not be able to."
Though the fight that broke out on the Sunday night flight was obviously an overreaction, McCartney tells NPR's Neal Conan, confrontations over seat reclining happen almost every day on airplanes.
Last March, McCartney assembled a panel of experts — a veteran flight attendant, an etiquette expert and frequent fliers — and asked them about the proper etiquette when it comes to reclining your seat on an airplane. He offers the following guidance — gleaned from personal experience and input from his panel — to help maintain in-flight harmony.
When reclining your seat: McCartney says if you're thinking of reclining, "use some care for the person behind you." You can recline slowly, or turn around and ask the passenger behind you if it's OK. When McCartney needs to work on his laptop during the flight, he says, he sometimes asks the passenger in front of him if he'd mind not reclining the whole way.
When you're in the window seat, your seatmates are asleep and you need to get up: "Most [panelists] thought that if you have to go to the bathroom, go," McCartney says. Other panelists suggested the aisle seat passenger could try to coordinate times when everyone could get up. And if you need to wake up someone next to you, try touching a shoulder or an arm, not a hand, "or you might startle somebody."
When you're hungry or bored: McCartney advises being mindful of your travel companions. Think about whether that big greasy burger with extra onions or that violent movie might offend the person wedged in next to you.
When you're too tall or wide for the seat: The seats are about 17 inches wide on a Boeing 737, McCartney says, and people don't have a lot of sympathy — especially not for obese passengers. Exit and bulkhead rows can provide a bit of relief, though.
When a kid kicks your seat: McCartney advises not trying to discipline someone else's child. You don't want to put the parent in a defensive posture.
Who gets the arm rest? "Arm rests are a real battle," McCartney says. Some people believe the beleaguered middle-seater deserves both; others say it's first come, first rested. So the jury's still out on that one.
Ultimately, McCartney says, the thing that's missing from air travel is the notion that we're all in this together. "I think passengers can help each other more than they really do."
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NEAL CONAN, host:
A pair of F-16 fighter jets escorted a United Airlines flight back to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. on Sunday. The reason: a fistfight in the cabin. The exact details remain unclear, but one passenger apparently hit the recline button on his seat, which annoyed the guy behind him, who slapped the recliner on the head. Punches were exchanged. The flight attendant and another passenger jumped in to break it up, and the pilot turned the jet around.
It's a scene that may be too familiar to many flight attendants who work every day among people dealing with the stress of air travel on top of the pressures of everyday life. Flight attendants, how do you keep the peace? What advice do you have for us passengers? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Scott McCartney writes The Middle Seat column for The Wall Street Journal and wrote about bad behavior and etiquette on airplanes, joins us today from his office in Dallas. Nice to have you on our program again.
Mr. SCOTT MCCARTNEY (Wall Street Journal): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And it's interesting, you took on this very question. You assembled a panel of, I guess, a veteran flight attendant, an etiquette expert, veteran fliers, and posed this set of questions about situations that seem to come up all the time, including the question of, do you recline the seat?
Mr. McCARTNEY: That's right. And we got very different answers, which I think is sort of typical of the uncertainty people have about how they're supposed to behave on airplanes.
Reclining the seat is a major issue. Seats have been pushed closer together. You have very limited space. If you want to work on your laptop and the person in front of you reclines, you may not be able to. It can really affect your experience, and people get quite militant about it. Obviously this is a overreaction, what happened Sunday night with the United flight. But there are all kinds of confrontations every day, I think, over seat reclining.
CONAN: And I wonder, do we give them more attention because they happen on, you know, airplanes that are in the air and sometimes have to go back to land at someplace, either where they took off from or someplace else because of a disturbance and fighter jets are involved? I mean, do we pay more attention to these than they might - than we probably should?
Mr. McCARTNEY: I don't know if we pay more - we pay more attention to these kinds of episodes than other episodes in everyday life because everything gets magnified on an airplane. There are 145 other passengers on that flight who got inconvenienced. There was tremendous expense as the airplane was burning fuel for 25 minutes so it would get down to landing weight limits. And people got stranded overnight. There were military jets involved. It became a major incident because one guy slapped another on top of the head because he got upset about the seat recline. It may happen in the movie theater, but it doesn't affect everybody else in the theater.
CONAN: Yeah. It's interesting. You mentioned the difference of response. One person says you have the right to recline, but it's nice if you check behind you and see if somebody has got their computer open or something that could spill on to their tray.
Somebody else says, if the airline gives you the option to recline, that is yours. You don't need to ask permission.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, and I was actually surprised by some of that. I thought people would really be more generous. Airline executives in particular said, hey, we give you the ability to recline. That's part of what you get when you buy the seat, so do what you want.
Frequent travelers, on the other hand, were the ones who really were sort of opposed to reclining or at least using some care for the person behind you. Recline slowly. Some people advocated turning around and asking, hey, is it OK if I recline? I've seen some people done it myself - ask the person in front, say, you know, hey, I've got a lot of work to do. I've got to open my laptop. Would you mind not reclining the whole way so you don't smash my computer?
CONAN: Interesting also that there were some constructive ideas on the situation. If you're - obviously more flights are more crowded all the time, so everybody's got a problem. But if you're in the window seat and the two people next to you are asleep, what do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, that was another one where there was not a lot of compassion for other travelers. Basically most people thought, well, if you have to go to the bathroom, go. Now, some people said, you know, this ought to be orchestrated.
So the person in the aisle seat wants to go to sleep, gets up, says I'm going to the bathroom. I appreciate it if everybody else would go because I'm going to go to sleep and then you're going to be stuck. I think, you know, one thing that's missing from air travel is sort of a notion that we're all in this together, and I think passengers can help each other more than they really do.
One of the good suggestions we got was from a frequent traveler who said, you know, maybe the flight attendants ought to say, hey, this flight is very crowded. It's going to be a very long flight. Be nice to your fellow passengers.
CONAN: Let's see if we get - talk some - with some flight attendants. 800-989-8255. Email:email@example.com. How do you police etiquette on the airplane? Daysha(ph), Daysha with us from San Francisco.
DAYSHA (Caller): Hi. Yes. Your commentator has struck, obviously, a very big chord with me. I'm a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier. And I don't know that I have anything new to add to the discussion. I just was listening to what he was saying, and I think the main thing is the civility issue and that people who fly need to realize that if the seats recline, everyone has a right to recline their seat.
But that being said, perhaps, before you do so, maybe look behind you, maybe let the person behind you know that you're about to recline your seat. And then the person who is being reclined on needs to realize that just like themselves, the person in front of them has the right to recline their seat.
CONAN: I wonder, though, what you made of his suggestion where - somebody was suggesting that the flight attendants might announce, in the course of those announcements we always get at the beginning of every flight, something like we have a very crowded flight today, folks, please be kind to your neighbor.
DAYSHA: I think that that would be a great idea. I'm not quite sure why I have never thought of doing that myself.
CONAN: And I wonder, do you find that as amenities on the flight go down, as fewer and fewer things are offered and we're charged for more of them, that, well, seats are more crowded, the airlines themselves are provoking more incivility?
DAYSHA: I think certainly the lack of legroom, yes. I'm sure that that does. And I think at certain times of the year, especially when there are less savvy travelers out there traveling, such as the summer months, that the flights are more crowded and people do tend to be a little less civil and a little less patient, you know, with each other.
CONAN: Daysha, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
DAYSHA: Thank you.
CONAN: And Scott McCartney, interesting, the idea that somehow the airlines contribute to this in some ways.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, I think there is something to that. I think airlines have made coach travel today pretty unpleasant. And by the time you get through waiting in lines - TSA certainly plays a role in this - you may be angry about how you were treated at the security checkpoint, you may be angry about the baggage fees you have to pay or the weight limits on baggage or all the things that go into it.
You may be stuck in a middle seat with minimal legroom, no food. There's, you know, lots of things. It's a very stressful situation. And I think the decline in airline service and comfort has coincided with an increase in problems among passengers on planes.
CONAN: Let's go next to Ross and Ross with us from Farmington Hills in Michigan.
ROSS (Caller): Hey, Scott, you know, I agree with what you're saying, with the airlines making it unbearable for the passengers. I fly a Cessna. We own it privately, our family does. And every time I go on a commercial flight, I notice that people are in - you know, T-shirts have holes in them or they're wearing pajama pants, and they're not just dressing like they're going out in a public - in a social situation, which it very much still is.
So my - what I'm trying to say is if you dress like a gentleman and dress like a lady, you're going to be treated like a gentleman and be treated like a lady, and so you will with other people also.
CONAN: So airlines should impose a dress code?
ROSS: Well, you know, that's not realistic, and that will never happen. But I think it's etiquette that people should, you know, not put on their Sunday best, but look presentable for the, you know, everybody else. It is an event. It's not a, you know, it's not a - you're not going on the plane to sleep. You're going there to travel.
CONAN: All right. I wonder - although I would advise people to avoid the big hat, but Scott McCartney?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, I think that's exactly right. And I think it's, you know, not just attire, but more so the food that people bring onboard planes. If, you know, somebody comes in with smelly, greasy food and that's unpleasant to the person sitting next to him, or the person sitting next to him is uncomfortable watching them chow down, that's a problem. People crank up the music on earphones and - or watching movies that the person next to them may not want to watch.
And you know, if someday we have cell phone capabilities onboard airplanes, I think airlines very much want to keep cell phones off of airplanes, at least in the U.S., for this very reason, because we - you know, you are wedged so close to people. It's unlike any other sort of everyday occurrence. You are shoulder to shoulder and in intimate contact with somebody. And we don't want to hear the cell phone conversations of the three people around you.
CONAN: Ross, thanks...
ROSS: I agree.
CONAN: ...thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
ROSS: Thank you, yup.
CONAN: We're talking with Scott McCartney, who writes The Middle Seat blog for The Wall Street Journal and wrote the article "So Who Gets the Armrest?" - was published last March 17. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And that came up again - who gets the armrest?
Mr. McCARTNEY: Who gets the armrest is an interesting question. My favorite answer was, they do. The armrest - armrests are a real battle. Some people believe that the poor passenger in the middle seat is entitled to both armrests as sort of the consolation for having the middle seat. Other people believe you ought to find a way to distribute and share. But the reality is you've got three people and two armrests, and it gets tricky.
CONAN: Let's go next to Tom, and Tom is with from Toledo in Ohio.
TOM (Caller): Yes. I'm just a frequent passenger, and I had an experience where the person in front of me was reaching down for a seatbelt and feeling around and got a hold of the long leg of my tray table and pulled it forward and tipped the hot cup of coffee off of my table onto my lap.
And he didn't - he never knew it. I didn't make a deal. And the person next to me who saw it happen, I just smiled at her and she smiled back. I think civilized - you get in civilization where you're packed in together and you have to make allowances and not cause trouble.
CONAN: I hope you're flying to San Antonio later this evening.
(Soundbite of laughter)
TOM: I will be kind to whoever is on the plane if I were.
CONAN: OK, Tom. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
Here's - let's see if we can go next to - this is Brandon, Brandon with us from Boise.
BRANDON (Caller): Hi. My comment is just that I apologize to the people that do want to recline in front me. I'm 6 foot 10 inches tall. So when I sit on -generally I fly in a small commuter plane - Q400. And I put my knees into where I need to go and then squish my butt into the seat and I'm there for the duration. And if somebody tries to lean back, there's nowhere to go. My knees are already pressed right up against the seat.
CONAN: And this was - interestingly, Scott McCartney, another of the areas you explored. What do you do with the tall people who can't really fold into this -the allotted space?
Mr. McCARTNEY: It's a real problem because, you know, we - there are plenty of people who don't fit into the allotted space, both tall people and wide people. A 17-inch wide seat on a 737 just does not accommodate a lot of travelers these days.
And particularly, people get very upset with issue of obese passengers. If you spill over that armrest and encroach on the person's space next to you, that's a real problem that people don't have a whole lot of sympathy for and it does provoke some confrontations on board planes.
CONAN: Brandon, some airlines will sell you extra legroom. Do you purchase it when you can?
BRANDON: I try - I do try to get the exit row seats or the bulkhead seats, where I do get just a little bit more room. But needless to say, my height -it's pretty small.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Not a lot of room. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Brandon. This is from Rick in Oakland, who's got the same problem: I'm 6'5" with very long legs. If the person in front of me tries to recline, they won't be able to go very far. My legs will be pinned. What does your guest suggest? Well, I think maybe getting the exit row or the additional legroom row.
This from a flight attendant, who prefers to remain anonymous: From the moment we are on duty, we flight attendants are watching and noticing behavior. We look at emotions, physical traits, other distractions, children, briefcases, et cetera, to know who might be a concern or who can be a resource to help us in an emergency.
We're trained in self-defense, verbal judo, and negotiation compromise with conflict management. The number one way we maintain control in the cabin is to be present and visible so that we can address any concern as it happens, not after it starts. Proactive action is our best friend.
And I wonder, Scott McCartney, if you can tell a proactive and good flight attendant from the minute you get on the plane.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Oh, I think you absolutely can. And I think that's exactly right. I've seen flight attendants who are able to diffuse situations with some humor, with some poignant comments, having some fun with the passengers to diffuse confrontation. And I think that's, you know, that's really smart, it's very effective. But, you know, flight attendants have to be careful, situations can escalate.
In this situation on Sunday night, apparently a flight attendant did jump in the middle of the fistfight along with another passenger. But, you know, the reality is those two guys were presumably just hell-bent on trying to hurt each other.
CONAN: It's interesting. One of the tips that comes out of the column that you wrote on etiquette in air travel is if you do have to touch another passenger to wake them up or something, try the arm, the elbow, the shoulder, not the hand. And it didn't come up, but I suspect a slap on the head is probably not the way to go.
Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, I think that's right. You know, you have to remember, you have to be very careful, you're going to startle somebody. And I thought that was really good advice. Also good advice, you know, the issue comes up about children kicking seats or, you know, how do you police that. And I thought the best advice was not trying to discipline somebody else's child and not trying to be - put the parent of the child in a defensive posture...
Mr. McCARTNEY: ...but, you know...
CONAN: Scott McCartney, thanks very much. I'm sorry. We're running out of time.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.