EDITORIAL: Trying times in the 'friendly skies'

EDITORIAL: Trying times in the 'friendly skies'

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Americans love to air their grievances — over big issues and slight infringements.

That sometimes doesn’t work too well, especially when you’re in the air on a passenger flight.

That was underscored by the confrontation that erupted Jan. 31 on a short American Airlines flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, North Carolina when two passengers — a man and a woman — got into a dispute over the woman reclining her seat. The man was seated in a row at the back that could not recline.

According to news reports, it started simply enough when the woman, Wendi Williams, reclined her seat and the man seated behind her asked her not to recline while he ate. Williams said she complied and when the man was finished eating, she reclined her seat again. At that point, she said, the man began repeatedly punching the back of her seat — hard, with fist jabs that sent her forward in her seat.

Williams said she tried to get the attention of a flight attendant and then took her cell phone and took a video of the man punching her seat. Williams said when the flight attendant came, she told her of the seat punching and said the attendant was unpleasant. She said the attendant turned to the man and asked him if he was OK, apologized that the seating was so tight and offered to get him a rum drink — to replace one that apparently capsized during the contretemps. Then the attendant told Williams to delete her video or she could be removed from the plane and handed her a “Passenger Disturbance Notice” warning of possible prosecution.

She stopped taking video, but Williams said she has cervical disk problems and claimed she lost time at work, had to have X-rays and suffered headaches from the encounter. And, yes, she has also now threatened to sue.

A week later when Williams posted her video of the seat-attack online, social media erupted with scores of comments on the ill air behavior — splitting between scolding Williams for a lack of consideration — and some saying she was perfectly within her rights — and others charging the man was guilty of acting like a 2-year-old having a tantrum.

Within days, the video garnered more than 2.5 million views as the debate raged on.

And some blamed the airlines. We’re in that camp.

Perhaps the most cogent analysis of this air debacle came in a Baltimore Sun editorial this week. The Sun cited a 1940s experiment in a vacant lot by John B. Calhoun, a behavioral researcher at Johns Hopkins University. He discovered that “when rodent populations were crowded together, they behaved badly. Given space, they lived harmoniously. Squeeze them into tight spaces and suddenly there was aggressive behavior, deliberate wounding of young and, eventually, a complete social breakdown.”

“Why are human beings forced to sit in such close proximity that passengers paying hundreds of dollars can’t be spared this dilemma?” The Sun asked. “The fault is not with ourselves or our neighbors, but with an air travel industry squeezing every last nickel out of its seating plans without the slightest worry of government intervention.”

The Sun said it was “scandalous” that airlines had cut the width and pitch of airline seats since deregulation 40 years ago. “Airlines that once offered 36 inches of legroom as standard are now 31 inches or less. In some cases it’s as little as 27 inches.”

That, the newspaper said, poses difficulties for evacuation in an emergency, greater risks of passengers getting blood clots from cramped seating, increased chances of spreading flu and other diseases — as well as boosting the potential for “air rage” among passengers.

The Sun has advocated for Congress to pass an air travel bill of rights that would improve travel for a “host of issues, including setting a minimum seat size and pitch.” It noted the FAA is looking at seat size, health and safety issues with a report due out in March — but said that agency’s “track record isn’t especially good at sticking up for customers.”

We’re not holding our breath, either. The fact is that airlines are trying to maximize their profits by cutting fuel costs, reducing vacant seats and cramming as many “rats” on their flying sardine cans as they can — or “encouraging” passengers to upgrade to costlier seats.

Sadly, a dust-up between two passengers over reclining a seat is not likely to change that scenario.

Have a nice flight; but if you’re seated by us, please remember to pack your manners.

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