Decline leaners and the airlines that let ’em

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By Christopher Elliott

The first thing I noticed about the declining passenger in seat 9C on a recent flight from Orlando to Washington was that he was carrying a light sabre.

You know, as in Star Wars.

After we reached our cruising altitude, I got up to use the restroom, and when I returned, I found that he had reclined his seat — all the way. I had a little problem with that because I was in 10C, and I was trying to write a column on my laptop.

The seat pitch in economy class is small enough to give a Lilliputian claustrophobia, so it should come as no surprise that my PC wouldn’t open enough for me to use it.

No problem, I thought. I’m the travel troubleshooter. I can handle this.

“Sir,” I said, as politely as I could. “Would you mind sliding your seat up a notch? I can’t open my laptop with your seat all the way back.”

No answer.

“Sir?” I said, adding a little volume.


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I tapped him on his shoulder gently.

“Please,” I said. “I can’t work.”

“I’ve been up since 4 a.m.,” Mr. Star Wars murmured, and turned away.

“What a coincidence,” I said, my blood pressure rising. “So have I.”

I had several options. First, I could escalate the confrontation. (But the man was traveling with a toy; a troubling sign.) I could move to a different seat. Or I could ask a flight attendant to intervene.

I’ll be honest: I felt like smacking Mr. Star Wars with his plastic weapon.

I picked door number three: to bring this ridiculous encounter to the attention of a flight attendant. You’ll probably find his response — and his resolution — to be interesting.

“Kindergarten,” he sighed, when I explained my predicament. “We’re on your side, but there’s not much we can do.”

The attendants didn’t want to confront Mr. Star Wars because they shared my misgivings, that this particular character might not be completely stable. The flight was full, even in first class. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure they would have offered me an upgrade for the rest of the short flight.

“It’s a shared space, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the attendant. “Just because you can lean all the way back doesn’t mean you should.”

How about the empty jumpseat, I asked him. Could I sit there? No — that’s against regulations, he said.

So how did this standoff end? I’ll get to the solution in a second. But first, a few words about who is to blame for this mess.

Ultimately, it’s a passenger’s responsibility to know proper flying etiquette (and don’t laugh –— there is such a thing). But there are other culpable parties. Chief among them, the airline.

Think about it. If the seats in economy class were made for adults, then we wouldn’t have to put up with this childish behavior. If the airline offered a humane amount of legroom, then Mr. Star Wars could lean back and I could work on my laptop.

Pie in the sky? OK, how about limiting the amount of lean-back on the seats, if you’re going to wedge them that close together? That’s not unreasonable.

Too hard for your aircraft mechanics? Alright, here’s another suggestion: Why not remind passengers that they’re in a shared space and request that they ask before leaning. Mr. Star Wars nearly cracked the screen on my laptop when he forced his seat all the way back.

Had he done that, then I would have been forced to use my light sabre.

I’m kidding. I always pack a loaded antique pistol in my carry-on bag. The TSA hasn’t stopped me yet. Read more about it on my Advocacy page

If an airline can’t manage to remind its passengers to practice common courtesy, then it should empower its own employees to step in and mediate the inevitable conflicts. I could tell the flight attendants just didn’t want to get involved.

I loved their fix, though. An attendant opened a tray table in the galley, I set up my computer and worked while standing until we started our descent. Then I wedged myself back into 10C for the rest of the flight.

So what does all of this mean to you? Next time you feel like taking a nap on a plane, please, please, ask the person behind you if it’s OK to go back.

You don’t want to be a rude recliner.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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