Amy Fine wanted to nap on Delta flight 2370, from New York to Palm Beach, Fla., so she laid her head on the tray table.
The passenger in front of her wanted to relax with some knitting. She reclined her seat — smacking Fine’s head and sparking an emotional explosion.
The resulting screaming match caused an unscheduled landing in Jacksonville, Fla., the third diversion in nine days caused by passenger fights over shrinking legroom.
The space squeeze — as airlines pack more people and profit into planes — is only the latest frustration for travelers, already weary of security hassles and charges for checked baggage, food, in-flight entertainment and other once-free services.
Such moves have led industry profits to near-record levels. But have they pushed passengers to a breaking point?
Two other quarrels diverted planes last week, including a United Airlines flight that was grounded when a passenger installed a plastic device known as a Knee Defender to prevent the flier in front from reclining.
Surveys show that uncomfortable seats and shrinking legroom have become the top gripes of travelers, surpassing ticket prices and security lines.
“The airlines have been so focused on the bottom line that they don’t realize you can’t balance your budget on the back of passengers,” said Alex Gerwer, a frequent business traveler from Long Beach.
At 6 feet 2, he said he understands how cramped quarters could make some travelers fly off the handle. Over the years, his knees have been repeatedly battered by reclining airline seats.
“I can’t control being this tall,” he said. “Occasionally I will ask people not to recline. I will say, ‘You can’t go back any farther. You are on top of my knees.’”
He only finds relief, he says, in the rare case he can get an exit-row seat.
The tighter seating arrangements are exacerbated by increasingly crowded flights. The percentage of occupied seats on domestic flights reached a record 83.1% last year.
The airline industry makes no apologies. Travelers who want more room can simply pay for roomier seats, said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation’s largest carriers.
“Planes are more full, a reflection of the fact that flying remains affordable,” she said. “Fuller flights in turn help keep flying more affordable.”
Not everyone sees value in less space on more crowded planes. Ira Goldman invented the Knee Defender because — at 6 feet, 3 inches tall — he needed a device to protect what little legroom he had.
“The airlines don’t want to acknowledge there is a problem,” Goldman said.
The crowding keeps many travelers on edge. In the latest incident, Fine erupted at the passenger in front of her, and then cursed at the three flight attendants who tried to calm her. She demanded that the plane land immediately.
“She was shaking her hands and very combative,” to the point where attendants feared for their safety and that of passengers, according to a report by the Jacksonville airport police.
Airlines have also looked to thinner seating materials to squeeze more paying customers onto planes.
In some cases, airlines used the extra space created by the so-called “slim line” seats to add roomier seats for first- and business-class passengers.
But the trend has often meant less legroom for economy passengers in the back of the plane. To fit in more space in front, JetBlue has reduced the legroom on 11 rows of economy seats to 32 inches from 33.
Florida-based Spirit Airlines — the industry leader for sardine-like cabins — stuffs 178 seats on an Airbus 320. By comparison, United puts 138 seats in the same aircraft model.
As airlines squeeze legroom in their cheapest seats, they have started charging passengers for extra legroom in other seats.
JetBlue’s Even More Space seats offer 5 to 6 inches of extra legroom for $10 to $65 more than standard economy tickets. Spirit’s Big Front Seat, with 6 extra inches of legroom, costs $12 to $199 more, depending on the length of the flight.
The trend is likely to lead to more bickering between passengers, said Jan Brueckner, a UC Irvine economics professor.
“It always irritates the hell out of me when someone does a full recline in front of me,” he said. “But I think people need to be more considerate in these tight cabins.”
But Seth Kaplan, managing partner at the trade publication Airline Weekly, predicts that passengers will continue to fly on airlines with cramped seats because the prices are so affordable.
“It would be no surprise that people feel more claustrophobic than in the past,” he said. “People say they hate it, but they reward the airlines that continue to do that.”
Spirit Airlines, Kaplan noted, has the least legroom in the industry — and the highest profit margin.
But the crowding can prove too much for some passengers, bargain or no bargain.
On Aug. 24, a traveler on a United flight from Newark to Denver found she couldn’t recline because the flier behind her had installed the Knee Defender. She threw a glass of water in the passenger’s face. The flight was diverted to Chicago, where the two passengers were removed.
United said the incident is not a sign of widespread frustration.
“It’s certainly not a trend that we see on our airline,” said United spokeswoman Karen May.
On Aug. 27, an American Airlines flight from Miami to Paris was diverted to Boston after passenger Edmund Alexandre, 60, reportedly began fighting with another traveler in front of him over a reclining seat.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office said Alexandre began to argue with another passenger, and their dispute escalated. Alexandre then followed a crew member to the back of the plane and grabbed her arm, the statement said.
At that point, federal air marshals on the plane identified themselves and placed Alexandre in handcuffs. He could face charges of disrupting a flight.
In the most recent incident, the Delta flight that was schedule to arrive at 10:10 p.m. in West Palm Beach, Fla., instead landed in Jacksonville at 9:30 p.m.
Before making the call to land early, flight attendants had tried to calm Fine, the 32-year-old passenger from Boca Raton, Fla., who got bonked on the head with the reclining seat.
“The more they tried to calm her, the more upset Ms. Fine became,” according to a report from the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.
She ultimately did regain her cool. On the ground, before getting escorted to a rental car agency and released, Fine told authorities that two of her dogs recently died and that she was “just very emotional.”