NEW YORK — Squeezed into tighter and tighter spaces, airline passengers appear to be rebelling, taking their frustrations out on other fliers.
Three U.S. flights made unscheduled landings in the past eight days after passengers got into fights over the ability to recline their seats. Disputes over a tiny bit of personal space might seem petty, but for passengers whose knees are already banging into tray tables, every inch counts.
The latest spate of passenger problems started Aug. 24, when a man on a United flight prevented the woman in front of him from reclining thanks to a $21.95 gadget called the Knee Defender. It attaches to a passenger’s tray table and prevents the person in front from reclining. A flight attendant told the man to remove the device. He refused, and the passenger one row forward dumped a cup of water on him.
Three days later, on an American flight from Miami to Paris, two passengers got into a fight, again over a reclining seat, and the plane was diverted to Boston.
Then on Monday night, on a Delta flight from New York to West Palm Beach, Florida, a woman resting her head on a tray table got upset when the passenger in front of her reclined his seat, hitting her in the head. That plane was diverted to Jacksonville, Florida.
The passengers on both the United and Delta flights were already sitting in premium coach sections that have 4 inches of extra legroom.
There were 14,903 flight diversions by U.S. airlines in the 12-month period ending in June, according to an Associated Press analysis of Department of Transportation reports. That means, 41 flights a day, on average, make unscheduled landings at other airports.
The government doesn’t break out the reason for diversions, but industry experts say the vast majority occur because of bad weather or mechanical problems. And diversions remain a tiny portion of the 6 million annual flights in the U.S. — less than a quarter of a percentage point.
The decision to divert is up to the pilot. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant says the crew must determine if the person is going to cause harm to others or has terrorist intentions.
It can cost an airline $6,000 an hour, plus airport landing fees, to divert the standard domestic jet, according to independent airline analyst Robert Mann.
“These costs are among the reasons why airlines ought to be arbitrating these in-flight issues instead of diverting, not to mention the significant inconvenience to all customers and possible disruption of onward connections,” Mann says.
Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines, says that if airlines install seats that can recline, passengers should have the right to recline. Of course, Spirit and Allegiant Air are the only U.S. airlines to install seats that don’t recline.
“People should lose the emotion,” Baldanza says. “We’ve never had to divert because of legroom issues.”