A woman who’s become an icon in the debate over whether it’s OK to recline your airplane seat said she was “scared to death” by how a flight attendant handled her painful ordeal.
Wendi Williams, who said she’s a teacher in Virginia Beach, tweeted footage of a man repeatedly hitting the back of her reclined seat with his fist during an American Airlines flight in January.
But what viewers saw in the video wasn’t even the worst of it, Williams told CNN’s “New Day.”
Before she started shooting, the man behind her “started punching me in the back, hard,” Williams said Tuesday.
“I tried to get the flight attendants’ attention. They were not paying attention, so I started videoing him. That was the only thing that I could think of to get him to stop.”
Earlier in the flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, Williams said the man behind her asked “with an attitude” to return her seat to the upright position so he could eat from the tray table, she said.
She obliged and moved her seat back up. But when the man was done eating, Williams said she reclined her seat once again.
That’s when he started “hammering away,” she said. “He was angry that I reclined my seat and punched it about 9 times - HARD,” Williams tweeted.
She also tweeted that she was injured, and that the incident caused pain.
“I have 1 cervical disk left that isn’t fused,” she wrote.
“I’ve lost time at work, had to visit a doctor, got X-rays, and have has [sic] horrible headaches for a week.”
After she started filming the man, “he did stop punching as hard,” she told CNN. “So it did work to a certain degree.”
But Williams said she was stunned by what happened when she tried to get a flight attendant to help.
She said she tried to alert a flight attendant as soon as the punching started. But the employee “rolled her eyes” at Williams and offered the man she accused of hitting her seat some complimentary rum, Williams tweeted.
After that, the flight attendant handed her a stern form letter, titled “Passenger Disturbance Notice.”
“Notice: YOUR BEHAVIOR MAY BE IN VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW,” the letter reads.
“You should immediately cease if you wish to avoid prosecution and your removal from this aircraft at the next point of arrival.”
“It was shocking,” Williams told CNN.
“I think the more calm I remained, (the flight attendant) got angrier and more aggravated. So she said, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore. I’m done with you,’ or ‘I’m done with this,’ something to that effect, and then handed me this passenger disturbance notice.”
After that, the flight attendant told her, “‘I will have you escorted off the plane if you say anything else. Delete the video,’” Williams said. “And I was scared to death.”
She said she’s looking into possible legal action.
In a statement to CNN, American Airlines said it was aware of the January 31 “customer dispute” aboard American Eagle flight 4392, operated by Republic Airways.
“The safety and comfort of our customers and team members is our top priority, and our team is looking into the issue,” American said.
Airline passengers are entitled to “fly rights,” outlined by the US Department of Transportation, when they buy a plane ticket. Those ensure airlines will do things like provide passengers with water when delayed on the tarmac or, if overbooked, ask passengers for volunteers before others are bumped off involuntarily.
But comfort and personal space are not among those rights.
Air travel dos and don’ts are wildly divisive and regularly broken. Everything from who has ownership over the armrest (etiquette experts told CNN in 2014 the passenger in the middle seat gets both) to which animals qualify as “emotional support” creatures (a new federal proposal would ban ESAs like peacocks, potbelly pigs and iguanas from flights) have ignited fierce debate.
Still, there’s an expectation that when you fly, you’ll respect other passengers and make the best of your cramped surroundings.
Punching the back of a passenger’s seat is impolite, according to many of the people who responded on Williams’ Twitter feed. But was Williams in the wrong, too, for encroaching on the man’s already limited personal space?
Lilit Marcus, CNN Travel’s Hong Kong-based editor, wrote in November that reclining should be reserved for “special occasions.”
“Reclining is a way of asserting that your travel needs, and only yours, matter,” she wrote. “People are fine with doing it, but no one likes it when it happens to them.”
Several of them told CNN in December that reclining is rude, particularly for passengers seated in economy class who already have restricted leg room. One reader said that because of her body type, if the passenger in front of her reclines their seat, she loses the ability to use the tray table to work while flying.
Even Delta Air Lines’ CEO has weighed in.
In April 2019, Delta retrofitted many of its jets to reduce how far the coach and first-class seats could recline. A spokeswoman told CNN it was part of the airline’s “continued efforts to make the in-flight experience more enjoyable.”
“It’s all about protecting customers’ personal space and minimizing disruptions to multitasking in-flight,” the spokesperson said at the time.
In an appearance on CNBC, company CEO Ed Bastian said while he doesn’t recline his seat in the sky, people should have the right to – as long as they ask permission.
“If you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s OK first,” Bastian said. “I never recline, because I don’t think it’s something as CEO I should be doing, and I never say anything if someone reclines into me.”