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The recline of civilization

Midair friction? New airline seats might help ease tension

The decision about whether to recline one's airline seat has been a flier's most vexing question since tempers turned hot over that issue around Labor Day. Here are some simple truths about the ethics, and future, of leaning back at 38,000 feet.

Reclining seats are allowed, and the practice isn't going anywhere. Seats on the standard commercial jet recline. They will continue to recline. Airlines support customers' right to recline.

"Our seats recline, and we provide that as an option for our customers," said United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart. That airline is in the process of adding new seats to 700 planes, and, yes, they will recline.

Said American Airlines' Matt Miller: "Customers have every right to recline while onboard as long as it's not during takeoff or landing. But it's our hope that passengers use good judgment and common courtesy."

Which raises a good point. Because reclining seats aren't going anywhere, let's be civil when leaning back.

Henceforth, I will politely inform the person behind me before I recline the seat. It's how I would want to be treated. That said, I will not be asking permission; the seats recline for a reason. But if there is an extenuating circumstance in the row behind me, perhaps a moment of chatter might alert me to it.

Airplane seats are changing. The industry is moving away from the bulky seats that simply recline into the space behind. American Airlines is turning to a new, slimmer seat in which the "seat pan" slides forward as the back reclines. In theory, this will prevent the person ahead of you from leaning quite as far back. The bad news is that we also lose knee room due to our seats sliding forward. But it does give us more of a choice. American is installing these seats on all 83 of its new aircraft in 2014, plus retrofitting them to older aircraft.

United's new seats lean straight back, though Hobart said fliers still will be afforded new comforts.

"They're thinner seats that curve up and provide almost an extra inch for the knees," he said. "That will help alleviate the impact of recline from the person in front of you."

The Knee Defender device isn't allowed, and that won't be changing. Nor should it. The contraption that sparked the recent midair hostilities deprives travelers of a right they have purchased: the right to recline. Plus, industry analyst Robert Mann said locking a tray table in the downward position creates a potential nightmare if trying to evacuate a plane. Most airlines, including American and United, ban the Knee Defender.

Midair squabbles are rare. Of course, both American and United say so, but so does Mann, who argued that fighting over reclining seats was more a problem of timing (late August) than a trend.

"That was the peak week of the peak month of the travel year, which corresponds with a worst-case travel experience," Mann said. "The planes are at their fullest, it's hot, people are returning from vacation and maybe not in the best possible moods. … Three or four flights out of 30,000 per day in U.S. isn't so bad."

jbnoel@tribune.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

Midair friction? New airline seats might help ease tension

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