On Airplanes, To Recline or Not to Recline?

A plane diverted to Boston to unload a passenger who wasn’t too happy about the person in front of him reclining their seat.

Image by Douglas P. Perkins via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Douglas P. Perkins via Wikimedia Commons

The nationwide debate over the etiquette of reclining your airplane seat landed in Boston’s lap Thursday. The Associated Press reports:

Passenger Edmund Alexandre became upset after a woman reclined the seat in front of him on the Miami-to-Paris flight on Wednesday night, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office said.

Alexandre, who’s from Paris, continued to be disruptive when a flight crew member attempted to calm him, following the crewman down the aisle and grabbing his arm, authorities said. Two undercover federal air marshals on the flight then subdued Alexandre and handcuffed him, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Alexandre further endeared himself to his fellow passengers when the flight made a surprise landing in Boston to unload him. The occasion has given snarky Twitter snarkers occasion to make jokes about Boston.

But this scenario is most interesting because it’s the second time this week that a U.S. airplane has had an issue over seat reclining. In the first incident, a man used a device that prevents the person in front of you from reclining. The woman in front of him ended up throwing water in his face, occasioning both of them to be booted from the flight in Chicago.

You know what two stories in one week means… Trend pieces! Actually, the think pieces on seat reclining were coming fast and furious even before the Boston landing. Some commentators deemed those who put their seat back “monsters” and others, like Josh Barro in the New York Times, called for a way that tall passengers can pay those in front of them not to recline. This is an issue of etiquette, says Bloomberg‘s Megan McArdle. If you don’t want your neighbor to recline, you need to ask politely.

Of course, here in New England, a region known for its deep aversion to superfluous interactions with strangers, that last idea sounds monstrous. We can’t leave something as controversial and lacking in consensus as seat reclining etiquette up to Emily Post. No, we need someone to dictate the rules. And of course, they already have. As McArdle notes, airplanes are built with a recline button, and you pay an exorbitant amount of money to occupy that seat for a few hours. If you weren’t supposed to recline, they wouldn’t let you. (See: the ban on cell phone conversations in the air.)

Even that stance will probably remain controversial, but here are some lessons from this week’s events that won’t: Don’t yell at your fellow passengers. Don’t throw water at them. Don’t physically grab the flight attendant. If you do these things, you may end up getting friendly with an air marshal and making an unwanted stop in Boston, where we’re probably not going to want to engage you in small talk. Best to just avoid it.