Jeff Jacoby

You may not be 100 percent sure what you think about Vladimir Putin's maneuvers in Ukraine, Burger King's tax inversion, the indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry, or Scotland's independence referendum. But you know exactly where you come down on the Great Airline Reclining Seat Controversy, don't you? 

Everyone has an opinion on the passenger in Row 12 who caused an uproar on a United flight from Newark to Denver when he used a plastic bracket called the "Knee Defender" to block the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. When a flight attendant told the man to remove the gadget — which United, like most airlines, prohibits — he refused. The infuriated woman in Row 11, reported the Associated Press, "then stood up, turned around, and threw a cup of water at him." Whereupon the plane was diverted to Chicago, and the two passengers were ejected.

Three days later, another passenger was booted from another flight because of another struggle over legroom. American Airlines diverted a Miami-to-Paris flight to Boston, where Edmond Alexandre was arrested on charges of "interfering with a flight crew" after fighting when the seat in front him was reclined.

Small wonder these stories have struck a nerve. You don't have to be a frequent flyer to know how cramped air travel has become, or how maddening — not to mention kneecap- and laptop-endangering — it can be when the already minuscule space between you and the seat-back in front of you suddenly shrinks further because a passenger one row up leans back without warning. Nor is it hard to understand the frustration of a passenger with an aching back or a need to sleep who presses the recline button, only to discover that the seat has been deliberately immobilized by a fellow traveler.

But how did the battle between knee defenders and recliners turn into an all-or-nothing clash of rights?

"I own the right to recline, and if my reclining bothers you, you can pay me to stop," asserts economics reporter Josh Barro in The Upshot, a New York Times politics and policy website. "If sitting behind my reclined seat was such misery .?.?. someone would have opened his wallet and paid me by now."


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.