Friday, June 3, 2011

Too close for comfort: reclining seats & fisticuffs in sardine class


The other day, this news story made headlines around the world:
Government and airline officials say a United Airlines plane with 144 people aboard returned to Washington-Dulles International Airport for an emergency landing escorted by two F-16 fighter jets after a fight broke out between passengers. 
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown says Flight 990 bound for Accra, Ghana, returned to Dulles in Chantilly, Virginia, just after midnight Sunday after a fistfight in the cabin.
Government officials confirmed that fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
United spokesman Mike Trevino said Tuesday that the Boeing 767 dumped fuel as a safety precaution to lighten its weight on landing.
The Washington Post, which first reported the incident, reported that the fight began not long after takeoff when a passenger lowered his seat and a passenger behind him objected.
Crazy, right? Someone reclines their seat, like we've all done when we're on a plane, and then suddenly fisticuffs ensue, fighter jets get involved, and thousands of litres of airplane fuel are dumped in the ocean. Also, an entire flight full of people get the privilege of heading back to where they started. I'm sure glad I wasn't on that flight with my kids!


Fuel dump of an Airbus 340-600 over the Atlantic near Nova Scotia.
And still, as crazy as this story is, and as horrible as it is that someone actually started a fight over a reclined seat, I'm not that surprised. If the plane in question was anything like the Lufthansa plane my family traveled on when we came back from our latest holiday, I am especially not surprised.

Up close and personal
Flying in economy class usually means you're too close to other passengers for complete comfort. You can barely stretch your legs, and you better tuck in your elbows and watch where you're putting your arms and hands.

But on that Lufthansa flight, the seat-rows seemed to be obnoxiously close together. When the person sitting in front of me lowered their seat, I ended up with the seat-back and the TV-screen almost pressed into my face. It was literally only a couple of inches from my forehead. Solution? I reclined my seat of course! Causing some upset grunting and shifting behind me, in turn.

And then, whenever I would get up, or the person in front of me or behind me would get up, we had to push, yard or hold on to the seat back to get out of our seats, especially since the rows were so close. Especially nice when you have your tray table down and a drink on top of it. Yep, fun times.

Did it annoy me? For sure. Not to the point of physical violence, but still. My kids however seemed to actually prefer it when the seat in front of them was reclined, because that made it easier for them to reach the touch-screen controls on their TVs. Bonus for someone at least.

Space, the final frontier
Complaining about the lack of space in Economy class is cliché. There are the reports of "Economy Class Syndrome" (less of a risk when you're traveling with kids, since you'll be up and about a lot), the jokes about Economy being "the cattle class", or "the sardine class", and so on. But seriously, if people can't recline their seat without essentially squashing the person behind them, something is wrong.

I'm not asking for Business Class-type of space (though I'd love it if  I could afford it!), or a flat-bed (I wish!), but I do think the airlines could give us a couple of inches extra at least.

Finally, if you want to know what airline offers how many inches of legroom, I recommend this wonderful survey on Smart Travel Asia, with details of the legroom offered on various airlines in Economy Class.

Fuel dump picture thanks to Bobmil42, sardine can by RI, both via Wikimedia Commons.

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