By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
I’m telling you, it must have been like Seder night. I can just imagine the young woman sitting on that United Airlines flight en route to Denver that had to be diverted to Chicago. Seems like she and the man sitting behind her couldn’t play nicely, and both had to be escorted off the plane in an unscheduled stop, inconveniencing all the other passengers, who thought they were flying to Denver nonstop.
The tiff? She wanted to recline her seat and he did not want her to. If she reclined her seat, she would be infringing on his space. But not being able to recline would infringe on her inalienable rights as a member of the traveling public. So I can hear the Mah Nishtanah that was probably sung on that plane: Why is this flight different than all other flights? On all other flights we sit “bein yoshvin ubein mesubin,” some sitting upright while others recline, but on this flight, kulanu ein mesubin, there is no reclining at all.
The fellow had purchased a $22 gadget called a “knee defender,” which clips onto the tray table and prevents the person in front from reclining his or her seat. Now, if one is permitted to bring his own device that makes airplane travel more enjoyable at the expense of fellow travelers, then, you’ll excuse the pun, the sky is the limit. And make no mistake, the airlines built the seats with the ability to recline, and the male traveler was the one who made the “modification.” This would seem to support the argument of the female traveler, who argued that her right to recline superseded his right to protect his knees from potential bruises.
Perhaps the true culprit is the airline for configuring an airplane in such a manner that comfortable travel is impossible. You pay for everything today on those airplanes. An extra fee to board early, an extra fee to board late, an extra fee for a carry-on, extra fees for checked baggage, fees for headsets, for movies, for food, take-off taxes, landing taxes, fees to book on a computer, fees to book with a live agent, fees to travel, and fees to cancel travel. Fees to be wanded and fees to be X-rayed. A fee if you decline to be zapped and want a physical pat-down instead. A fee for an aisle seat and another fee for a window seat. And the worst? A $25 fee for a seat that reclines, only to have the passenger behind you pay $22 to make sure that the seat won’t recline. We are not far from the day when a fee will be imposed to use the oxygen masks if G‑d forbid they are needed. Let’s just hope they won’t require exact change. Who carries loose change to the airport these days?
The most bizarre part of the story is that United Airlines bans the use of the “knee defender” gadget and can impose a fine of $25,000 for its use if such use disrupts the flight. But in this case, while the flight had to be diverted, which inconvenienced every other passenger, and while the two combatants were not permitted to continue to Denver, they were neither arrested nor fined. There were zero repercussions for their antics, but I think I know why.
You see, I’m figuring that the head of United Airlines was on vacation. He was golfing somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard. He popped back on the scene for a few minutes when trouble was in the air, he even put on a suit jacket, but then it was back to the links. A while back, he drew a red line in the sky and said that anyone who crosses that red line would suffer the consequences. But there were no consequences, so passengers just did what they wanted. No one took the head honcho seriously.
Rogue airlines, headed by evil people, began to pop up and create havoc, but it was too late. The rogue airlines were on the move to destroy civil aviation as we know it. They moved forward with impunity. It was too late. While the boss’s body left for vacation two weeks ago, his mind departed months, if not years, before that.
The pilots and the flight attendants who are entrusted with enforcing the laws in our skyways complained. They just wanted to do their jobs and have the boss back them up. But, for some reason, the boss was always more sympathetic to the passenger, even if the passenger broke the rules. It was as if the boss were apologizing for the success of the airlines and undermining those who were moving the industry forward.
One time, a passenger broke a rule and had to be subdued by the captain. The boss (from the golf course) sent three airline officials to the passenger’s home to offer him comfort. And soon pilots no longer wanted to be pilots.
One airline offered to stand up to the evil pirates of the sky, because that boss understood evil. But this airline’s boss, the one who “checked out” when he checked his baggage, grounded his fleet in the face of adversity and tried to close the airport of the one airline that knew that not every flight is to a vacation spot.
Yes, airlines charge a fee for everything. But those fees are nothing compared to the price we will pay as a civilization, a country whose leader has perfected absence. When he was but a candidate for the highest office in the land, one criticism leveled against him was that as a senator he often didn’t take a stand and merely voted “present.” Now, six years into his presidency, he’s not even present. Something tells me the seats on Air Force One recline. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or


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