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Why do airplane seats recline? Video of man hitting woman's reclined seat sparks debate

Why do airplane seats even recline?

For some people, the function is just a test: Will you keep your seat in the upright position and prove you belong in civilized society? For others, the fact that a seat reclines is reason enough to lean back into comfort.

This divisive debate, that has people firmly entrenched on either side, is raging again on social media in the wake of the latest viral instance of an altercation on a flight.

Passenger Wendi Williams posted a 45-second video to Twitter on Feb. 7 that shows the man behind her poking her reclined seat dozens of times — the way a child might jostle their parents to get their attention on a car ride. Williams smiles for the camera as her seat rocks her back and forth.

She said in a tweet that before she started recording, the man had punched the back of her seat much harder.

He was angry that I reclined my seat and punched it about 9 times — HARD, at which point I began videoing him, and he resigned to this behavior,” Williams wrote. “The other jackhole is the @AmericanAir flight attendant who reprimanded me and offered him rum!”

Asked to confirm Williams account, American Airlines emailed the following statement: “We are aware of a customer dispute that transpired on American Eagle flight 4392, operated by Republic Airways on January 31. The safety and comfort of our customers and team members is our top priority, and our team is looking into the issue.”

Republic Airways emailed a nearly identical statement.

Toronto-based etiquette expert Lisa Orr was surprised to hear the flight attendant took the side of the man.

“When we start being allowed to reprimand others with physical violence, it gets pretty ugly pretty quickly,” she said, adding one of them should have been moved to a new seat.

But the video divided the internet, with some saying that it’s never, ever OK to recline your seat — especially on a short, two-hour midday flight from New Orleans to Charlotte. There was little sympathy on that side of the debate for Williams, who said that she reclines her seat due to extensive neck injuries that may have been exacerbated by all the punching and poking.

People on the other side saw a privileged white male bullying a woman.

Some declared both parties “children.”

American etiquette expert Elaine Swann, who was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines for 10 years, said the reclining woman was perfectly within her rights.

“The airlines have designed the seats in that manner, and the flight attendants welcome you to sit back and relax,” Swann said, adding that the best way to settle a disagreement like this is with the help of a flight attendant. “I would have reprimanded the passenger that was expressing the aggressive behaviour.”

Orr agreed that if a seat can recline then “you’re entitled to use it.”

“I was amazed at how angry people were at the woman,” she said.

Of course people should still be polite. Orr said that she recommends people turn around to kindly notify the person that they are about to recline their seat. That way the person behind has a chance to voice any concerns, although the decision about whether to recline or not ultimately lies with the person occupying the seat in question, she said.

It’s also common courtesy not to recline during meal service.

In Williams’ case, the passenger behind her was watching a video on a phone placed on a flat tray. For some, this showed that he still had sufficient room.

While some said the woman should have taken pity on the man who was in the last row of the plane and lacked the ability to recline his own seat, others pointed out that then the person in front of the woman should take pity on her, and so on, meaning no one could recline in the end.

The true villain in this tale may just be the airline.

“I think a lot of this responsibility falls to the airline in terms of how you manage the experience for your guests,” Orr said. “It always boils down to a lack of good design. If the airplane environment was designed better, we wouldn’t have as many issues around people being courteous.”

With ever-declining legroom on planes, “the nature of the environment makes it very difficult to be civil,” she said.

She said it may be time for airlines to remove the option to recline and settle this debate once and for all. In April 2019, Delta Air Lines announced that it would try reducing the recline from four inches to two on 62 A320 planes used for flights less than two hours. Other airlines have carried out similar experiments, with some seats coming moderately pre-reclined, but the majority are still a fully functional temptation.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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