Passenger Rights

Southwest Passenger Chokes Fellow Flyer Over Reclined Seat

An incidence of air rage on a weekend Southwest flight raises anew questions regarding airlines’ responsibility in managing inflight behavior.

There’s no simple formula for air rage, but it’s clear that the key factors include cramped seating, full planes, and longer flights. Add in a dose of alcohol over-consumption and a reclined seat back and you have a recipe for simmering frustration that can quickly escalate into aggressive behavior.

Southwest flight WN2010 from Los Angeles to San Francisco would seem to be an unlikely candidate for an outbreak of violence. Most of Southwest’s B737s feature seats with 32- or 33-inch pitch. While hardly spacious, that’s roomier than most other U.S. airlines’ seating. With a scheduled duration of just over an hour, flight 2010 was barely long enough to get comfortable, much less uncomfortable.

Booze? That’s always a possibility, of course. But on such a short flight, there’s little time to consume enough alcohol to significantly affect behavior.

On the other hand, while there’s no official word on the flight’s load factor, given the route and the day and time, it was probably pretty full.

But on that short, full flight, shortly after take-off, one passenger reclined her seat, infuriating the man seated behind her, who “started choking her,” according to a witness quoted in an NBC report.

The incident was deemed sufficiently serious that the pilot chose to divert the flight back to LAX, where law-enforcement authorities removed the offending flyer from the plane.

One traveler physically attacking another traveler, over a reclined seat—scary for all concerned. And if that weren’t distress enough, the flight’s 136 passengers arrived in San Francisco five hours late.

If it can happen on a short flight, on a plane with decent legroom, it can happen on any flight. As it did. And as it will again.

Such incidents raise questions about personal responsibility, and about the use of such devices as Knee Defender, which limits the recline angle of seat backs. But those considerations shouldn’t deflect focus away from the airlines themselves, which ultimately control the main factors contributing to air rage: the size and spacing of seats; the degree of recline of seats; and inflight alcohol consumption.

Until airlines make adjustments to those variables, there will be a steady stream of air-rage outbreaks, as travelers are pushed beyond the limits of self-control.

Reader Reality Check

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By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.