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Passengers are frustrated about getting squeezed

Sept. 3, 2014, New York, N.Y. - Squeezed into tighter and tighter spaces, airline passengers appear to be rebelling, taking their frustrations out on other fliers.


September 3, 2014
By The Associated Press

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.

 

“Seats are getting closer together,”
says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants,
which represents 60,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines. “We have to
de-escalate conflict all the time.”

 

There are fights over overhead bin space, legroom and where to put winter coats.

 

“We
haven’t hit the end of it,” Nelson says. “The conditions continue to
march in a direction that will lead to more and more conflict.”

 

Airlines
today are juggling terror warnings in Britain, the Ebola outbreak in
Africa and an Icelandic volcano erupting and threatening to close down
European airspace. Yet, the issue of disruptive passengers has captured
the world’s attention.

 

It’s getting to the point where the pre-flight safety videos need an additional warning: Be nice to your neighbour.

 

The
International Air Transport Association calls unruly passengers “an
escalating problem,” saying there was one incident for every 1,300
flights in the past three years. The trade group would not share
detailed historical data to back up the assertion that this is a growing
problem.

 

Today’s flying experience is far from glamorous.
Passengers wait in long lines for security screening, push and shove at
the gate to be first on board, and then fight for the limited overhead
bin space. They are already agitated by the time they arrive at their
row and see how cramped it is.

 

To boost their profits, airlines have been adding more rows of seats to planes in the past few years.

Southwest
and United both took away one inch from each row on certain jets to
make room for six more seats. American is increasing the number of seats
on its Boeing 737-800s from 150 to 160. Delta installed new, smaller
toilets in its 737-900s, enabling it to squeeze in an extra four seats.
And to make room for a first-class cabin with lie-flat beds on its
transcontinental flights, JetBlue reduced the distance between coach
seats by one inch.

 

Airlines say passengers won’t notice because
the seats are being redesigned to create a sense of more space.
Southwest’s seats have thinner seatback magazine pockets, Alaska
Airlines shrank the size of tray tables, and United moved the magazine
pocket, getting it away from passengers’ knees.

 

But passengers aren’t just losing legroom; they’re losing elbow room.

 

Airlines
sold 84 per cent of their seats on domestic flights so far this year,
up from 81 per cent five years ago and 74 per cent a decade ago,
according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That means there
are fewer and fewer empty middle seats on which passengers can spread
out.

 

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.”