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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.

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