America's most famous flight attendant settles internet debate over reclining seats

On Friday, a video posted on Twitter showed an American Airlines passenger punching the reclining seat in front of him. The ensuing online debate asked: Who was wrong? More importantly, is it rude to recline your seat? Buster interviews flight attendant Sarah Nelson, whom The New York Times calls "the most powerful flight attendant in America." Nelson, who has been on the air for 24 years, is credited with helping end the 2019 government shutdown. Most recently, she served as president of the world's largest flight attendant union (CWA), representing nearly 50,000 flight attendants.

Nelson followed proper airplane etiquette and assigned Bustle a 4-1-1.

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

airline. Everyone has expectations for flight space. The reality is that airlines have squeezed out all the extra space. They’re bringing seats closer together while continuing to provide the opportunity to “sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.” Conflicts between passengers are the biggest challenge we (as flight attendants) face. We are working harder than ever to de-escalate conflict, but fewer and fewer people on board can do that. Airlines should increase flight attendant staffing – we need proper staffing to help resolve conflicts.

In this particular conflict, are you on the side of the punchers, or are you on the side of the deckchairs?

Both parties are responsible. I don't understand why this person responded this way - it's a completely inappropriate response. But when you're able to recline your seat, be aware of everyone around you. If you don't check, you might spill someone's drink, or you might squash someone's head if they put their drink on the table. Make human contact with the person behind you before lying down, and recognize that this is a group activity. If you can't solve the problem, ask a flight attendant.

Have you ever seen a fight break out on an airplane?

I've seen people fight. I've seen a passenger threaten a mother holding her baby by seemingly hitting the baby. Tensions rise and if someone is angry, there is no room for retreat.

Finally, is your seat reclined?

I don't. But there is one exception: I lean back when I know I'm in a row with extra legroom, but I always look back, make eye contact, let them know I'm leaning back, and then very Tilt slowly. I never fully lean. Ninety-five percent of the time, I don't lean at all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.