Photograph by Adam Berry—Getty Images
By Laura Lorenzetti
September 4, 2014

As terror worries climb, volcanoes fog the airspace, and fliers jockey for overhead baggage room, tensions are already running high when passengers take their seats on a plane.

Now, to add further insult to injury, airlines are reducing passenger personal space, and that shrinking real estate could amplify sky rage.

Passenger conflicts have grounded three commercial airline flights over eight days, affecting three of the largest U.S.-based airlines, including United (UAL), American Airlines (AAL), and Delta (DAL). The diverted flights inconvenience the hundreds of passengers and cost airlines thousands of dollars in airport landing fees and customer re-bookings.

Over the past three years, about one in every 1,300 flights has reported incidents of unruly passengers, according to the International Air Transport Association. The association deemed the issue “an escalating problem,” according to the Associated Press.

Amid this tension, airlines are looking to boost profits by adding more rows of seats: American Airlines will increase available seats on its Boeing 737-800s to 160 from 150. Delta shrunk the toilets on its 737-900s to shoehorn in four more seats. And Southwest and United took away an inch of knee-space from each row to squeeze in six additional seats on some planes.

JetBlue, the economy-friendly airline, even took an inch of space away from coach passengers to make room for lie-flat beds in transcontinental first-class sections.

Airlines have tried to create the illusion of more space by moving or repositioning magazine pockets or shrinking the size of fold-down tray tables, but passengers are feeling those lost inches of knee space. And it may very well push travelers over the edge.

While flight attendants are trained to defuse on-board conflicts, perhaps it’s time for airline management to take action. (That is, beyond banning the inflammatory $21.95 Knee Defender gadget.)

A recent poll from travel website Skift found that younger frequent fliers, those 25-to-34-years-old, are less apt to demand their reclining rights. Assuming that these customers’ preferences will hold steady as they grow older, this sentiment may bode well for airlines as they could prevent a future reclining war by getting rid of reclining seats altogether.

Spirit Airlines (SAVE) and Allegiant Air (ALGT) have already installed non-reclining seats. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza told the AP that the airline has never had to divert a plane because of legroom issues.

Many other airlines could benefit by following Spirit’s example. Airlines could even substitute amenities: take away sub-par reclining seats (really, how much comfort does two to three inches really add?) and offer one free checked bag.

If airlines still want to offer a few inches of seat-back recline, perhaps a simple addition to the safety video is in order: Be courteous to your fellow fliers. Every paying passenger has the right to recline.

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