There were two stories this week week about scuffles on airplanes after a passenger wasn't happy about the person in front of them reclining the seat. In both cases, things got out of hand enough that the pilot had to make an emergency landing and have the troublemakers removed from the flight. In both instances, it was the person in the seat behind the recliner that was made out to be the offender.
But they're wrong.
First, we have to stop using the word "recline" for this action. Anyone who has ever sat in a recliner knows that reclining involves more than leaning. Airplane seats do not recline -- if your recliner at home only tilted back a couple of inches, you'd return it to the store -- nor do they make anyone more comfortable. But they do violate the personal space of the person behind you, particularly if the tray table is down.
As a tall person, I run into this situation often when I fly. The airlines have crunched the space between seat rows so much that, if I don't get an exit row seat (with a couple of extra inches of room), I'll spend the entire flight with my knees uncomfortably pressed against the seat in front of me. And if that person reclines, I'll be able to feel their kidneys with my kneecaps.
On a flight a few years ago, I politely asked the guy in front of me not to tilt his seat back, and he immediately became upset at my "outrageous" request, responding that he had paid for that seat and had the right to recline if he wanted to. I told him that while he had the right, I hoped he'd be courteous enough to respect my right to not be in pain. He blew me off, so I asked again, and he raised his voice enough to make a flight attendant stop serving drinks to other passengers to come over and see what the problem was.
Before I could say anything, he complained to her that I wouldn't let him tilt back, and she turned to me, saying stiffly, "Sir, he has the right to recline his seat." As if that settled the matter, she turned back to the drink cart, but not before I replied, "I know he does. I'm just asking him not to be an asshole!!" I didn't press the matter any further, because it was obvious I wasn't going to win the battle and Mr. Courtesy ahead of me couldn't care less about the discomfort he was causing.
He reminded me of people who stand up in concerts without regard for the blocked view they're creating for those behind them. Or people who do nothing to quiet a raucous and noisy child in a restaurant. Or someone carrying on a loud cellphone conversation in a crowded space. They just don't care about the negative impact they're having on everyone else.
Solving this problem is an easy one -- airlines must immediately remove the tilt function from all seats. Or install a "no assholes" section.