To recline or not to recline? Airline legroom debate rages on.

Who’s at fault for recent passenger fights over reclining seats: stubborn air travelers asserting conflicting rights, or airlines for cramming more people into economy-class seats?

Chris O'Meara/AP
A ramp worker rolls past an American Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-82 at the Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Fla., May 15. A Paris-bound American Airlines flight was diverted to Boston Logan International Airport Wednesday night after an altercation between two passengers over a reclining seat.

Midair disputes between airline passengers over the right or audacity of reclining seats have led to the diversion of two flights, one arrest, and a raging online debate.

The most recent incident occurred Wednesday, when Edmund Alexandre became angry that the woman sitting in front of him on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Paris tilted back her seat.

Mr. Alexandre grew more enraged when a flight crew member attempted to calm him down, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston, where the plane made an emergency landing. He reportedly proceeded to follow the crew member down the aisle and grabbed his arm, prompting the air marshals on board to handcuff him until the plane could land.

Alexandre was taken to the hospital for treatment for preexisting health issues, where he was arraigned for interfering with a flight crew. He has since been released on his own recognizance until a hearing scheduled for December.

A similar altercation occurred on Sunday when an unidentified passenger aboard a United Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Denver employed a device known as the Knee Defender, which attaches to a tray table and jams the reclining mechanism for the seat in front.

When he refused to remove the device, the woman in front of him threw water in his face, prompting the flight crew to divert the plane to Chicago, where police and Transportation Security Administration officials questioned both passengers. No arrests were made, but neither passenger was permitted to reboard the plane.

The incidents struck a nerve with online commenters who have become fed up with the increasingly cramped quarters on airplanes. New York Times columnist Josh Barro’s piece “Don’t Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me,” which ran on Wednesday, had garnered more than 2,300 comments by Friday morning.

On one side of the debate, pro-recliners insist that the hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars they spend on their airline tickets entitles them to enjoy all the features of their seats. If people feel they need more legroom, they can pay for a better seat, they argue.

“Anyone who buys airplane tickets knows that seats recline and some people may choose to exercise that right!” writes Times commenter Harsh Patel. “If you want more leg room then get economy plus tickets! It's called economy for a reason!”

However, the online debate has exposed an entire subset of airline travelers who have apparently long since decided that reclining is a direct affront to the person behind them and that anyone who does tilt back is at best inconsiderate and at worst a malevolent narcissist.

“You never recline an economy class airplane seat. Never, ever, never, never. It is the peak of selfishness,” Sports Illustrated writer Brian Hamilton opined on Twitter.

A third camp points to the airline industry as the true culprit. If airlines had not continually whittled away at the amount of available legroom to cram in a few extra ticketed seats, they say, passengers would not be forced to turn on each other. Some netizens expressed hope that the heated debate might actually force airlines to reform their ways.

“Maybe if enough flights are diverted, the airlines will realize that removing a row of seats makes more economic sense – giving everyone a few inches back that they have taken away over the years,” writes one Boston Globe commenter. “No one expects 1st class space, but they keep adding more seats and reducing the space between seats.” 

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