WASHINGTON — If you pay good money for an airline ticket, should you be free without guilt to recline your seat?
Likewise, if you pay good money for a gadget that would stop the passenger in front of you from reclining his or her seat, should you have the right to use the device?
Those were the questions facing two passengers who got into a fight on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver.
According to news reports, one had spent about $22 for a device called the Knee Defender.
When placed on the tray table, it stops the person in front from reclining. The woman in front complained about not being able to lean back.
The flight attendant asked the man to remove the offending accessory. He refused. Tempers escalated and the woman threw water in his face. The ruckus prompted the pilot to make an unscheduled stop in Chicago, where both passengers were escorted off the plane.
By the way, a spokesman for United said it does not allow customers to use devices that prevent seats from reclining.
The story, as many do these days, has gone viral, with people dividing into defenders of the right to recline versus those who believe recliners are rude. You might see this as a debate concerning airplane etiquette. But I think, at its core, it is about money.
On the nonrecline side is Hamilton Nolan, who wrote long before the recent recliner skirmish for the website Gawker: “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. There are no exceptions.”
In the other corner are folks who argue that the right to recline comes with your airline ticket. It doesn’t matter if this right also infringes on the constricted space of a fellow passenger. You’ve paid for the right to be as comfortable as an airline seat allows.
“When I fly, I recline,” wrote Josh Barro, a reporter for The Upshot, a website hosted by The New York Times, in response to the story about the feuding passengers. “I don’t feel guilty about it. And I’m going to keep doing it, unless you pay me to stop.”
OK, yes it’s your seat and it does recline. But where’s the consideration for your fellow passengers also trying to manage the limited space on a plane?
“When you buy an airline ticket, one of the things you’re buying is the right to use your seat’s reclining function,” Barro continued. “If this passenger so badly wanted the passenger in front of him not to recline, he should have paid her to give up that right.”
Pay to upgrade to a better seat, many prorecliners say. If you can’t afford more space, well too bad you’re economically challenged, suffer in silence.
Brian Kelly on the website ThePointsGuy.com had this to say if you don’t pay for extra leg room: “Overall, this is a story of entitlement and greed — people wanting something without paying for it, then passive-aggressively ‘stealing’ someone else’s perk (in this case, recline space) for their own enjoyment.”
I see it another way. People feel entitled to do what they please because they’ve paid for a service without considering the comfort of others.
It’s the reason a woman on a flight I recently was on felt she had the right to make a telephone call while airborne and talk so loudly that I could hear her three rows away. When people complained and the flight attendant asked her to get off the phone, she argued that she had paid to use the airline’s Wi-Fi service.
The price you pay for anything should also come with a conscience on using the space, service or product.
I fly a lot, and I generally don’t recline. And when I do, it is part way. If I need more space because my back is hurting or I want to position myself so my neck doesn’t bother me as I try to sleep, I glance back to determine if reclining will crush the person in the seat behind me.
I don’t want to be paid to be courteous. We are all in this airplane sardine can together.
So I do feel bad for the person behind me, as I would hope the person in front of me feels. I’m grateful when someone doesn’t recline even though they’ve paid for the privilege. But if someone does, I grit my teeth and accept it.
Michelle Singletary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM).