ATW Editor's Blog

United seat-lock guy shows what a sad society we’ve become


An incident this week involving two United Airlines’ passengers who apparently got into an argument after one used a gadget to stop the other from reclining her seat is causing quite a bit of general media interest.

It seems that one passenger had acquired a gadget that is inserted in the back of the seat in front, making it impossible for that seat to be reclined. The guy wanted to use his laptop.

The passenger in front, meanwhile, objected and, according to reports, threw a glass of water over the guy after he refused a flight attendant’s request to remove the gadget.

 This set of antics resulted in the aircraft, which was enroute from Newark to Denver, being diverted to Chicago, where both passengers were escorted off the plane. The flight then continued on to Denver, arriving more than an hour-and-a-half late and at heaven only knows how much extra cost.

We’ve written extensively at ATW on the growing problem of unruly passenger behavior and some of the work that is going on at IATA and ICAO to try and establish a single set of global rules and penalties for disruptive acts. Just as important, airlines need to know that unruly passengers will be dealt with and punished by law enforcement agencies regardless of where the incident takes place. At the moment, there are too many legal loopholes in the system that have permitted, in some cases, passengers to seriously disrupt flights – sometimes even injuring cabin crews – yet walk away scot-free.

While that does not seem to be the case in the United incident, the passengers were not arrested or charged.

I can’t help but wonder whether the gadget guy was an employee of the gadget company? After all, the seat lock has gained plenty of free publicity.

Even if this wasn’t a publicity stunt, you wonder what’s gone wrong in the world that people can no longer politely ask their neighbor not to recline their seat for an hour while they work/eat. Have we all gone so text/Twitter mad that we can no longer function as courteous, speaking human beings?

So what’s next – a gadget to push your armrest out into the neighboring seat; auto-gags that come down from the roof, rather like those oxygen masks, to silence toddlers or chatterbox companions?

Throwing water over someone is not civil behavior, of course, but that passenger paid for her seat, while the guy behind her seemed to believe that he was entitled to control both his and the seats around him.

To a lesser degree, I see this type of territory-claiming all the time with the infamous “elbow” technique by deliberately sticking his or her elbow far and wide across your armrest. What you do is say, “excuse me, do you mind giving me my space please?” and usually they are so shocked, they immediately say “sorry, of course” and become fastidious about staying in their own paid-for space.

But with someone like Mr. Gadget, who came onboard armed and with intent, that probably won’t work.

So then it’s down to the poor flight attendant to act as regulator and hope it doesn’t get violent. 

Unless and until there is a real threat that passengers know they risk for unacceptable behavior on flights – serious fines and/or jail time – then I will make this plea to all passengers everywhere.

When the captain or flight attendant welcomes you onboard and says, “now sit back, relax and enjoy the flight”…please, for everyone’s sake, do exactly that. And while you’re at it, can everyone recline their seats? You’ll all get there faster and in a better mood for whatever it is you need to do on the ground. A 'thank you' to the flight attendants as you leave would be nice too.

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

on Aug 27, 2014

Wow Karen, you got that story completely backwards. The rude jerk was the woman who threw the water in the guys face. When you buy a seat you're not entitled to the space behind it. The recline feature is for when the seat behind you is empty. Based on the woman's awful behavior, I'm sure she would have told the guy to F-off if he asked her not to recline.. A little female bias in this story perhaps?

on Aug 28, 2014

Calvin, you don't buy a seat, you rent it. It is not yours, it is the airline's. If an airline has configured the cabin with reclining seats, the passengers are NOT entitled to modify those seats. The only thing you are entitled to is safe transportation from A to B. Everything else is courtesy. But since, as a society, we are losing touch with courtesy, we see it everywhere, not just on planes.
The space on planes is generally not growing smaller, but people are getting larger. If you have ever sat on a DC3, it is not spacious. The airlines tried giving more room in coach, and the market said "No" by choosing the cramped seats for $5 less on another carrier. If you want more room, pay for it. If you want to pay less and less, don't blame the airline for fitting more and more cheapskates in the same tube.

on Aug 27, 2014

Karen, I do agree that civilised and respectful behaviour is paramount amongst fellow passengers and that the use of gadgets like recline stoppers shall not be accepted on board. Moreover that misconduct by passengers, in particular towards crew, shall be punishable.
However airlines are also in part responsible for the frustrations amongst their customers. Less and less space, often seats that categorically do not recline, and absolutely minimum service levels in flight in my opinion aggravate passengers. Rabbits are very softhearted and docile, but see what happens to their behaviour when they get shoved in a too confined a space...

on Aug 27, 2014

While I don't condone the gentleman's action, it only a more overt version of the knees-in-the-kidneys gambit. Frankly, carriers bear more than a little responsibility by continuing to reduce both seat width and legroom at the same time the average passenger size has increased in both width and height. Arguably, carriers are now at a tipping point in their continued insistence on reducing coach passenger comfort, a ploy that is, indeed, uncivil as well.

on Aug 27, 2014

I agree polite cooperation has become scarce, but disagree legislation to address the resulting passenger behavior will fix this. The disconnect between those who want to recline and those who want to work will only be resolved by structural separation. "Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight" is gallingly out of touch with business travel today. While some of us can afford the time in flight to sit back and do nothing, others need the time to work. Stick me in the back of the plane with my laptop, if you must, but give me a reasonable option. Recognizing it's an even more complex problem on a red-eye, I still think airline product managers should borrow from the old smoking section model, to allow passengers a fight-free choice between space to work and space to recline. Putting flight attendants in the middle of this is a shameful dereliction of duty by airline execs.

on Aug 27, 2014

It's not "we". It's "him".

on Aug 27, 2014

Agree violently with all the above. Airlines provide a seat-back table as an amenity. If it can't be used because the passenger in front wishes to "sit back and relax" while they watch their movie on a three-hour hop, then that amenity becomes unavailable to the passenger as part of the product they have paid for and expect. If the 'squeezed-out' passenger is me, then am definitely not going to "enjoy your flight". The unuseability of the tray-table due to seat recline is now a more critical factor than it used to be. This is a factor for the airlines to resolve.

on Aug 28, 2014

I am not sure where some of the comments are coming from because s a paying passenger I pay for a seat that reclines. Anyone that tries to take away something that I paid for or impede my use of it, should bear the consequences of their actions and cease and desist immediately. if I buy a drink I don't expect that the passenger next to me will take it away from me because they can or because they think they have a right to. This has less to do about civility than having the ability to take advantage of something that you paid for. As far as I am concerned, this device should be banned. BTW, why couldn't the passenger with the device kindly ask if they could work on their laptop for a while instead of locking out someone else's seat?

on Aug 28, 2014

#1) EVERY paxs as the RIGHT to recline THEIR seat & gadgets ARE prohibited on I believe ALL airlines!

#2) The last I heard ONLY the US, Canada, Great Britain & Australia have signed an international agreements in regards to pax misconduct. In other words they will prosecute you but I believe this has more to do with violence or assault on an aircraft. International paxs are released unless it is a flag carrier from the aircraft. In the US unless you damage or do something directly to the aircraft or something that follows a threat to the flight you will be released. Assult a crew member or another paxs then it is up to the individual to press charges.

#3) The no brainier is IF you ALL recline your seat then you AGAIN have the same amount of space you had before. So, simple & MOST paxs DON'T DO this!!!

on Aug 28, 2014

Some interesting viewpoints here. On most international flights, of course, airlines have adopted pod-like seats that mean when the person in front of you reclines it does not impact the seat behind. But that's only in international first or business class. Clearly, airlines see the importance of offering their premium customers a seat that won't be obstructed by the person in front choosing to recline.
However, as is referenced in these comments, in the economy class, price is everything. People will buy a fare based on it being $10 cheaper and they opt not to pay more for an aisle or exit seat where it is offered for an additional fee.
So they get a cramped seat and very little more. But the airline's contract is to get you safely to where you want to go. Given the price of oil, the very high standards of operation, the regulatory requirements and the high taxes that airlines must pay to deliver that service, that is an expensive proposition.
Yet passengers typically want a McDonald's price for an oysters-and-champagne service.
Yes, airlines share some of the blame for not making it very clear what they with deliver at the lowest price end. And yes, I think some airlines need to catch up with the times. It's no good promising gate to gate WiFi availability if you haven't also figured out how a customer can reasonably use his laptop for a reasonable portion of the flight without interfering with fellow customer needs.
But I still say that the first rule in public behavior is to be civil, and flying on a commercial airliner is a very public experience from checkin through security, boarding, flight and immigration.
If you cannot behave in a civil manner throughout that process, and that includes not disabling someone else's seat or throwing water over another passenger, then you should be removed from the aircraft and heavily punished by regulatory authorities.
Another thought - what do you think about the non-reclining shell seats that some airlines now have in economy plus or even long-haul economy? With these, you can slide your seat forward, but it doesn't recline. I've used these on some very long flights with Air France and ANA. They also include useful pull-down cup holders, so you don't need your tray if you are just having a drink, and a power socket for laptops and iPods etc.
Is this the answer?

on Aug 28, 2014

Karen has it in there somewhere:
If you wish uninterrupted access to your laptop, buy a premium seat.

And I specifcially choose my seats insuring that they do recline (i.e. not the one in front of an exit row).

Yes, you may ask me to not recline, and I can refuse (at 6'1", I find it painful to 'not recline').

Further, in this case the airline staff asked the person to remove the clip, and the pax. didn't. That was WRONG, period.

In short, I paid for the same class as you did if we're in that same section, and while you may choose not to recline, that doesn't mean I can't either.

Like an oversized person requiring to purchase an extra seat (a proper expectation), you can do that too.

on Aug 28, 2014

I love the Premium Econ product, and the shell seats are an extension of that. Prem Econ makes long-haul (and Australia is a long way from everywhere, except NZ) tolerable when you are paying for the flight yourself. I do agree with your views on the need for civility (and I'm certainly not advocating the use of 'gizmo's'), but I reiterate... I see a useable tray-table as part of the amenity I'm paying for (as much as I do the seat-recline feature), and I bitterly resent, and take it personally, when the person ahead of me flops their seat back in my nose. It's a thoughtless, dismissive, and contemptuous act. As I said... there's an issue for the carriers to resolve. Perhaps it's to have more Prem Econ available...

on Aug 29, 2014

I see another airliner has been diverted following another reclined-seat argument. Thanks Bill for heads up!
This time it was onboard an American Airlines flight and the guy who was offended by the person in front reclining her seat allegedly grabbed the arm of a flight attendant who tried to intervene. There was also a couple of Air Marshals onboard.
The flight diverted to Boston and Mr Angry was escorted off the plane and arrested.
Hopefully he's now being enrolled in kindergarten.
Have a good Labor weekend folks and, if flying, be nice to the cabin crew who won't be getting the vacation weekend off.

on Aug 29, 2014

Hi Karen,

I liked the article and agree with your sentiments calling for more exercise of courtesy and patience in public spaces. Being respectful of others does seem to bring out the best in people.

I would like to add the airlines are culpable for this situation as well. Huge budgets are spent equipping their aircraft with both Wi-Fi connectivity and power ports to keep our laptops and other gizmos running. At the same time marketing campaigns (as well as the control cabin staff) are also encouraging us to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Obviously, with an airlines further interest of putting as many bodies onboard as supply & demand will allow, this is where the center of this conflict falls…..there is just not enough space between rows to both relax and work!

This situation is throughout the cabin on domestic narrow body flights (which means most). I routinely fly in bus / first and am almost always confronted with the situation you describe. I am a tall person and have a medium to small laptop, which does have a full keyboard. If the person seated in front of me does recline their seat, I am faced with being a contortionist to be able to get anything accomplished. This usually only lasts for a while before I get uncomfortable and give up.

I, for one, am an advocate and am appreciative for the investment airlines have put in technology. I look forward to getting to emails and completing those last minute projects in pleasant solitude. I am also one that does like to kick back at times and drift away. So for me, I understand both sides and feel the development of the seat lock is really an issue the airline created and needs to address. Under the ‘cake and eat it too’ philosophy, until given enough space for both pastimes to coexist, airlines should be prepared for such concerns and take responsibility for them as well. After all, they are the ones advocating the issue.

Thanks for reading…

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