Arguing over whether or not passengers should recline their seats is like arguing with your doctor over which bandage to use because the same mugger keeps stabbing you on a weekly basis. Pointless! Airlines LOVE it when we argue because rather than take responsibility for a literally shrinking and crappy product, they've quietly put the onus on consumers to fight out the consequences of cramming more people on airplanes. (Even a clueless, self-serving New York Times columnist thinks he can make a quick buck.)
Once again, the airlines lucked out and shirked their responsibility to give passengers accommodations that prevent constant bodily contact with the next person. Those airlines literally won't give an inch!
Since the 1960s, passenger seat width fluctuated. Unfortunately, in the last few years, airlines have been cutting down passenger space in the name of profit. While that might make them the money they so desperately need, enraging passengers and employing flight attendants as mediators isn't a sustainable solution. It never will be, but the executives that make these decisions most likely don't care because they're not the ones that have to deal with passenger outrage mid-flight.
The airline industry, however, knows that we need them because:
According to the forecast, the total number of people flying commercially on U.S. airlines will increase by 0.2 percent to 732 million in 2012, then to 746 million in 2013, and then increase more rapidly to 1.2 billion in 2032. The aviation system is expected to reach one billion passengers per year in 2024.
Those figures mean the airline industry has zero incentive to provide an adequate product.
Much like health care, the environment, education, and housing, air travel has become far too much of a necessary good that it cannot be left to the whims of the free market. Airlines have already proven that they will adhere to the bare minimum as required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and that's about it.
What's the solution? The government must intervene lest we all end up looking like this on an airplane. A common misconception is that the FAA oversees passenger comfort. Not true. All that agency is concerned with is ensuring planes don't crash. If an airplane can operate safely with passengers in standing room only area, the FAA will approve. Passenger discomfort? You might get water thrown in your face but at least you'll live another day!
The Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection should be the agency to crack down on the airlines' clandestine efforts to squeeze as many passengers on a plane without regard for space. The easiest solution is to mandate minimum space and seat requirements: seat width, seat extension, and leg room. Whenever airlines choose to modify the size and space of their passenger seats, they should post those changes in a public notice.
To be sure airlines aren't doing well financially anyway, but screwing the consumer isn't the solution because next time it might not just be a cup of water that gets thrown.