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Despite fights over reclining seats, unruly-passenger reports drop

Despite fights over reclining seats, unruly-passenger reports drop
It gets crowded in coach seating -- passengers wait to deplane a United flight in Chicago's O'Hare airport. Still, the reports of unruly passengers are on the decline. (Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)

Three commercial flights were diverted in the span of nine days recently because of passenger squabbles over reclining seats, prompting the question: Has shrinking legroom pushed fliers to their breaking point?

But if more passengers are having meltdowns over airline service, federal statistics do not show it.

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The number of "unruly passengers" cited with interfering with the duties of a crew member have declined over the past decade, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Passengers cited for interfering with a crew member can face criminal charges with a sentence of up to 20 years in prison or fines of up to $25,000, depending on the severity of the incident.

In 2004, 330 passengers were charged with being unruly and interfering with the duties of a crew member, compared with 167 passengers in 2013, according to the FAA. In the first half of 2014, only 59 passengers were charged with interfering with crew, putting 2014 on pace for the least number of "unruly passenger" cases in nearly 20 years.

But frequent fliers say tensions in the cabins remain high.

"Airline travel with all the attendant anxieties is bad enough, without the tension and stress generated by confined space," said Gerry Hallom, a musician from England who flies often to the U.S.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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