Memo to unruly airline passengers: This article does not recline

I'm on planes two or three days a week, so I can relate to the in-flight brawl that erupted between the woman who tried to recline her seat all the way back only to discover that the traveler behind her had a knee protector that prevented her from launching into his lap. They both got kicked off the plane after an emergency landing at O'Hare Airport.

What is for sure is that this powder keg was just waiting for a lit match (after all, people are at their orneriest when they are on airplanes), and so it’s no surprise that we've seen three in-air altercations in just the last few weeks. Expect more of these Ali-Frazier prizefights, with armed air marshals adjudicating. It turns out that, in the friendly skies, we can't just all get along. Now passengers are routinely installing $22 plastic "knee defenders" to prevent reclining. Airlines have had to ban these gadgets, and let's just say the sky wars are escalating. [pullquote]

The principal villains here are the airlines, which keep shoehorning passengers onto their planes as if the contest is to maximize the number of cattle – er, passengers – that can be squeezed into the least amount of room.

Is it just me, or are the planes getting smaller and the flights fuller? It's like the old vaudeville circus act of stuffing clowns in a Volkswagen Beetle. Now the airlines act as if they are doing you a great favor by offering you six whole inches "of extra leg room" for just $49.99, and the dread feeling of claustrophobia is so intense that we often pay up.

For some reason, when I board what are now the equivalent of flying Greyhound buses, I almost always seem to get behind the fat lady who, the minute the jet leaves the ground, asserts what she believes is her human right to recline her seat right into my bad knee. You know you're in trouble when, even before the flight takes off, they keep rocking back and forth like a bungee jumper. When folks feel at liberty to crash the party in the row behind them, they should at least have the decency to introduce themselves.

One time my Coke and burrito went catapulting into my lap. I had to give a speech in two hours looking like I wet my pants. At least the space invaders could have the decency to yell "incoming."

Some basic hygiene, like using deodorant, would be a crowd pleaser, too. I always feel like I'm Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, sitting next to John Candy after he takes his shoes off and puffs of fume start appearing from his feet.

The issue here is one of property rights. Who has the legal right to the eight inches in front of your nose? The airlines say this space belongs to the passenger in front of you, who has every right to fully recline. So complaining to the flight attendant gets you nowhere.

I've found moral suasion sometimes works. But when that fails, my favorite tactic is retaliation. So when a passenger obnoxiously does a pirouette into my belly button, I start coughing and sneezing uncontrollably right over the headrest and into the hair of my adversary. Then I wink to my seatmate and moan, "When am I going to get over this bronchitis?" This tends to bring the seat back up to its fully upright position and work better than making nice.

A confession. I'm no saint on airplanes myself. If I get stuck in a middle seat, I use the Steve Forbes tactic of talking about monetary policy to my seatmates, and this usually clears out the whole row. And I like to recline. I'm a 70 percenter. I often glide back, gradually, to two-thirds, and then come to a hard stop. Leaving those precious last two inches to my seatmate. It's a gift.

What's needed is for the airlines to establish a well-defined etiquette to prevent planes from becoming WWE matches. People need to find a literal middle ground. Civility goes a long way. When flights are getting diverted to other airports to settle these disputes, Houston, we have a problem.

The best advice I've received when flying was from a Southwest Airlines flight attendant who announced on the intercom: "Luggage tends to shift around in the overhead compartments, and so make sure you have your own stuff, because, remember – on planes, shift happens."