Cramped U.S. planes incite ‘legroom wars’ among economy class passengers

Etiquette in economy class under scrutiny


To recline or not to recline? Airline “legroom wars” are prompting growing rage in the United States, with two recent seat battles sparking a heated debate about the knee-bumping practice.

Amid the furor, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that space on passenger planes is getting scarcer and scarcer.

The question of reclining etiquette “has been a topic of discussion for many years,” said Sarah Schlichter, the editor-in-chief of “But the current uproar seems to be a sign that people are simply not happy fliers anymore.”

Within just a few days, two aircraft were re-routed because of passengers fighting over a seat recline.

One passenger even used a Knee Defender gadget to hold his position on a United Airlines flight between Newark, New Jersey, and Denver that had to detour to Chicago.

The $22 product consists of two clips that attach to tray table arms to block the seat in front of them from leaning back. Sales “in the past two and a half years have been increasing on a continuous angle,” said the gadget’s inventor, Ira Goldman. “People are traveling more, on more crowded planes, the space is smaller, and the airlines still provide seats that recline.”

For the past week, commentary, often tongue-in-cheek, has abounded, denouncing the cramped seats and taking sides in the undeclared war between the too tall versus the inadvertent knee crushers in the row ahead of them.

“The war between recliners and ‘legroomers’ is escalating,” website said Friday.’s Dan Kois was unafraid to take sides, saying that “tilting your seat back on an airplane is pure evil.” He described a cross-country flight with “the deceptively nice-seeming schoolteacher’s seatback so close to my chin that to watch TV I must nearly cross my eyes.”

But in The New York Times, Josh Barro defended the recliners, writing: “I fly a lot. When I fly, I recline. I don’t feel guilty about it.”

Goldman, who created the Knee Defender more than a decade ago, is ready to move on, however. “I would be gratified if the airline industry would solve the problem that they have been ignoring for so many years,” he said.

A Wall Street Journal study in October 2013 found that airlines were reducing space for economy-class passengers to make more room for first-class and business-class passengers, who pay far higher ticket prices. The norm for long flights has gone from around 18 inches (46 cm) in the 1970s and 1980s, and briefly up to 18.5 inches before shrinking down to just 17 inches in recent years, the newspaper reported.

In comparison, legroom on a typical U.S. train is around 20 inches.

To stop the legroom battles, some low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair have removed the reclining option on short flights.

“Baggage restrictions and fees, the loss of meal services, tighter seating and more for-fee upgrades that reduce the basic experience — all contribute to more aggravation for fliers,” said Schlichter.

Etiquette experts say leaning back is every passenger’s right, but one should beware about pushing to hard to exercise it.

“You purchase that as part of your ticket price, and no other passenger has the right to prevent you from reclining your seat,” said Anna Post, one of the directors of the Emily Post Institute, a famous school of etiquette. “We may be right, but trying to pursue being right may cause more trouble than it’s worth.”

She advises passengers to lean back slowly “so you don’t slam into someone,” adding, “Sometimes just a little bit is enough to be more comfortable.”