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The Showdown at the Window Seat

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/22/2019 Scott McCartney
© Rob Wilson

Welcome to the latest airline passenger cabin conflict: Window shades up or down?

It’s bad enough that people jostle over armrests and fume over reclining seats. They have to tolerate limited legroom, tiny toilets and overhead-bin space jams.

But as more travelers bring screens onto planes and airlines offer more in-flight entertainment, throwing shade on open-window enthusiasts has become more common.

Airlines and travelers say the proliferation of individual devices has led to more pressure to stay dark. More narrow-body planes have joined wide-body jets in offering individual entertainment system screens on the backs of seats.

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Many daytime flights cruise in cabin darkness to avoid glare and allow sleep. Some travelers say they have switched seating preference from aisle seats to window seats to control the shade—either up or down.

“Since the passenger experience is expected to be largely self-managed, perhaps the lack of control of a major component of that experience—light—has become a more glaring issue,” says frequent flier Andrew Zaiser with a chuckle. His in-flight entertainment is looking out the window.

On some daylight Boeing 787 trips, passengers report flight attendants routinely darken all windows right after takeoff and cut off individual controls. On hot days, airlines ask passengers to close shades to keep cabins cooler on the ground. And they never get opened.

Even Federal Aviation Administration inspectors have noticed, says agency spokesman Lynn Lunsford. “It seems that many passengers simply leave the window shades in the lowered position for the next flight,” he says.

The FAA has no regulations on shades up or down, though many countries require windows in exit rows to be clear for takeoff and landing, when an accident could jam a closed shade and prevent passengers from seeing if they were opening an emergency door into fire.

In the past, it might have been all shades down during a movie when everyone watched the same movie at the same time. Then shades went up when the movie ended. Now the viewing is constant, as is the squinting.

Members of the light brigade suggest that passengers who want to sleep should use eyeshades during daytime flights.

But those on the dark side counter that you can’t watch a movie with eyeshades on. If you need light, they say, you have one: your overhead reading light.

And those who like looking out the window retort that the view isn’t so interesting with the shade fully closed.

Jim Hayes Jr., a toy and novelty buyer from Saginaw, Mich., flies several times a year to Asia and wants to sleep, watch movies or use his iPad on the plane. Sunlight can be wicked from even one window, he says, especially when reflecting off clouds or ice below on routes that fly near the North Pole.

But it can happen on any flight. One time flying from Florida to Chicago at sunset, direct sunlight came screaming into his eyes, he says. A flight attendant saw several passengers struggling to block it and asked a woman seated by the offending window to lower the shade. She refused.

Mr. Hayes thinks it’s a matter of airplane etiquette: Passengers should go with the collective good. “If everyone else has it closed, why do you have to be the one person?” he says. “I personally think it’s a bit selfish.”

Now he wears sunglasses in the cabin and a hoodie on long flights so he can cover his eyes. Business-class seats shaped as pods with high walls help, he says.

For some people, light is important to keep your body clock on a schedule and counter jet lag. And some travelers say if all shades are closed, the sardine can that is a coach cabin feels more unsettled, even claustrophobic.

And for many, watching the world go by makes the flight more enjoyable. Michael Hyman, a New Jersey-based sales rep for a global consulting firm, took United’s Island Hopper flight from Honolulu to Guam with stops at beautiful atolls, islands and green water. He wanted to take pictures out the window. Another passenger watching a movie asked him to close the shade.

“One of my main motivations taking the Island Hopper was picture-taking,” Mr. Hyman says. He partially closed the shade as best he could, unhappily. “I always try to be a good seatmate,” he says.

Mr. Hyman thinks the power breakdown for airplane seating goes like this:

* The window seat passenger gets to control the window shade.

* The middle-seat passenger gets the armrests.

* The aisle-seat flier gets the most freedom of movement.

Light has become a bigger issue for fliers not only because of more screens but also because of more seats being packed into cabins, Mr. Hyman says. Dark cabins encourage sleep, and the more people sleep, the easier work becomes for flight attendants, he says.

The 787 has large windows to give passengers more view. The windows are dimmed electronically. Each window-seat passenger has a control and flight attendants have an override.

American says it tells its flight attendants not to lock out individual passenger control of window dimming on its Boeing 787s. United says it doesn’t have a policy.

Passengers say on many flights, especially daylight trips out of Asia to North America, flight attendants quickly darken the windows and lock out passenger control. They can give back control for a particular window to a passenger who asks.

Mr. Zaiser is a public safety supervisor from Bend, Ore., and United frequent flier who’s already accumulated one million miles in his late 30s. He always selects a window seat for the view. But he got a fully dark, locked window on a United flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, nixing his expected views of the southeast Asian coast and Philippines.

“I can’t help but feel a little cheated out of my window-seat selection,” he says.

Airlines say business travelers flying to the U.S. from Asia often want to sleep so they can be fresh when they land.

Delta, which doesn’t fly the 787 but faces ups and downs with manual shades, says it’s been getting comments about the need to go dark and believes that’s a reflection of the airline’s investment in in-flight entertainment systems, now available on about 700 of Delta’s 1,060 aircraft.

“It underscores how far we have come,” spokesman Morgan Durrant says.

The airline has seen window-shade spats between passengers resolved with flight attendants arranging trades to move passengers into darkness or light. Nothing shade-related has escalated into serious conflict, Mr. Durrant says.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

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