America’s Most Famous Flight Attendant Settles The Internet’s Seat-Reclining Debate

By Molly Coleman

Last Friday, a video posted to Twitter showed an American Airlines passenger punching the reclined seat in front of him. The ensuing internet debate asked: Who's in the wrong? And, more importantly, is it impolite to recline your seat? Bustle spoke to flight attendant Sara Nelson, who the New York Times called "the most powerful flight attendant in America." For 24 years, Nelson — who's credited in helping end 2019's government shutdown — has served from the skies. Of late, she serves as the president of the world's largest flight-attendant union (the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA), which represents nearly 50,000 attendants.

Nelson gives Bustle the 4-1-1 on proper plane etiquette.

First up: Who do you think is at fault in the video?

The airline. Everyone has expectations about space on flights. The reality is that airlines have squeezed out any excess space. They've brought seats closer together while continuing to offer opportunities to "sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight." Conflicts between passengers are our biggest challenge [as flight attendants.] We are de-escalating conflicts more than ever before, and there are fewer of us on board to do it. Airlines should be increasing the staffing of flight attendants — we need proper staffing to help resolve conflicts.

In this particular conflict, do you side with the puncher, or the recliner?

There’s responsibility in both parties. I don’t understand why the man is responding that way — that's a completely inappropriate response. But when you have the ability to recline your seat, be aware of everyone around. If you don't check, you could spill someone’s drink or squish someone's head if they're resting it on their table. Have a human connection with the person behind you before reclining, and recognize this is a group event. If you can’t resolve a situation, ask for flight attendants.

Have you seen conflicts spark on planes?

I’ve seen people get into a fistfight. I’ve seen a passenger threaten a mother with a baby, looking like he was going to hit the baby. Tensions rise, and if anger overtakes someone, there’s no space to step away.

Finally, do you recline your seat?

I do not. With one exception: I do recline when I know I’m in a row with extra legroom, but I always look behind me, make eye contact, let them know I’m going to recline, and then do it very slowly. I don’t ever recline all the way. Ninety-five percent of the time, I don’t recline at all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.