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Airline ‘Recline-gate’ discussion spotlights when one person’s customer service is another’s disservice

To recline or not to recline on a plane: That is the burning first-world dilemma currently making all kinds of headlines. The scandal began when a male passenger started punching the reclined seat of a female passenger. Even Ellen DeGeneres has weighed in through a article.

The article points out, “Ellen [DeGeneres] is the latest high profile name to weigh in on airplane passenger etiquette. Following the now viral video of a passenger who claimed she was repeatedly punched in the back of her seat when she reclined, [DeGeneres] gave her opinion on the matter during a segment on her show. The talk show host took a poll of her studio audience, asking who supported the man and who supported the woman in the reclining debate that has taken Twitter by storm. ‘I can’t believe anyone is taking the man’s side because, to me, the only time it’s ever okay to punch someone’s seat is if the seat punches you first,’ DeGeneres joked.

The article continues: “DeGeneres said that she believed the woman had a right to recline her chair because airline seats were made to do so, but she also appealed to both sides of the situation. ‘There are a lot of angry people out there right now but we need to learn more compassion, we need to think about what somebody else might be feeling, what she may be going through in her life,’ DeGeneres said as her main takeaway. ‘And the same thing, maybe he’s going through something, but he didn’t have to punch her seat.’”

While this issue in and of itself pales in comparison to so many weighty problems, the morals of this story merit weighty consideration. Among them are:

  1. Customer service isn’t just a company-to-customer process. It’s also sometimes consumer-to-consumer. Think about whether or not contemplated actions would fall into the “treating others as you would want to be treated” realm. For the woman who reclined, a simple upfront inquiry to the passenger behind may have staved off the problem and shown courtesy above and beyond. And, does anyone really think the angry puncher could have justified his actions if he had been the recipient? Planes in large part have become cramped sardine cans. There isn’t adequate space, so extra courtesy on everyone’s part would go a long way toward minimizing skirmishes.
  2. Even when a problem starts, consider about how to de-escalate it. To Ellen’s point, there are a lot of angry people out there and often there can be extenuating circumstances. Try to talk it out first and find common ground. I often think about his when I see a driver being erratic and speeding like crazy. Are they being inconsiderate and needlessly endangering others? Or, did they just learn that somebody near and dear had suffered a catastrophic event where time became critical?

Here’s the bottom line: Ellen’s right. We gotta find more compassion, patience and willingness to get along—no matter what circumstances are involved. That’s a basis of peer-to-peer “customer service.” And, to the airlines: Consider adding an announcement before each flight asking passengers to check in with the folks behind them when wanting to recline. I’m guessing in the vast majority of cases, it will all turn out all right—and avoid the needless escalation of a seemingly minor annoyance into a “tempest in a teapot.”

If, after all this, there is a problem, flight attendants should be trained to handle it. Might be time for a quick refresher course so that airlines can make sure their policies align with attendant training and understanding.

There, was that so difficult?


Essentially, treating people well and keeping them happy is substantially about treating others the way you want to be treated. Putting together and maintaining a system that will do this reliably across all customer service audiences in a rapidly expanding marketplace is the biggest challenge. Where to start? By understanding that the most successful customer service programs stem from caring, committed performance inside the company. Any efforts to market good customer service should come from authenticity, not grandiose, exaggerated claims unable to stand up to the light of day.

Do you have customer service snafus or stellar experiences to share? If so, feel free to comment on this post or email your thoughts to

Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

One reply on “Airline ‘Recline-gate’ discussion spotlights when one person’s customer service is another’s disservice”

To recline or decline to recline. That is the question. It may be a first world question, but if one travels economy class, air travel has devolved to third world status. If seats are provided with the recline option without providing the needed space to accommodate the option, the airline is guilty of promoting repeats of the incident. I agree that courtesy is increasingly necessary in a crowded and ever escalating anger environment, but to expect their live cargo customers to ask the person behind them if they would object if they reclined their seat is pushing customer service on to the customers themselves. Or so it seems to me.

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