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Whose fault is it when your laptop is destroyed by another passenger on a flight?

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Last December, I was returning from a work trip to Orlando and decided to use the time on my two-hour Delta flight to catch up on emails. There I was, happily typing away and probably listening to some horror movie recap podcast on my headphones when the unthinkable happened.

The person in front of me reclined their seat … and that’s where the story began.

Usually, I can easily ignore little things like reclined seats after a drink and a couple of Biscoff cookies. Until airlines stop allowing economy passengers to recline their seats, there isn’t much you can do when someone leans back, making your already small space even smaller. I’m not one to dwell on minor inconveniences.

The beginning of the end of my laptop

This particular occasion, however, was more than just inconvenient.

The passenger in front of me threw their seat back at breakneck speed, which crushed my laptop screen and rendered it useless. My seatmates and I stared wide-eyed as we saw my laptop get caught in the seatback. It only took a second or two, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. The screen compressed until it cracked, and we looked at each other in disbelief, wondering if what we saw happen had actually happened.


Unfortunately for me, it had.

I currently use a 15-inch Macbook Pro and, until that moment, loved the larger screen size. However, the larger size may have been its downfall in this situation.

When the passenger in front of me reclined the seat, my laptop got caught in the small opening on the seatback that holds the tray table in place when it is in its locked position.


With the corner of my laptop caught, there was no escape. Both my laptop and a little piece of my soul were crushed. I didn’t know it was physically possible for this to happen, so I didn’t immediately know what to do. As a travel writer, I decided my first course of action should be documenting the incident to help protect others from the same fate. I may have no longer had a laptop, but I was pretty sure I had a useful story.

I can’t say for sure if the passenger in front of me knew what had happened. Surely, they must have felt the resistance while trying to recline and the exclamatory chatter between myself and my seatmates, but they never turned around or acted as if they knew anything was wrong.

I am confrontation-averse, so I chose not to confront them myself, but part of me does hope they were aware of the situation and have since changed their aggressive seat-reclining ways. For better or worse, travelers are within their right to recline, but doing so gently and offering a quick warning to the passenger seated directly behind you should be the standard.

Asking for help in flight

I didn’t see any flight attendants nearby, so I did something I’d never done before: I hit the flight attendant call button.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, a friendly flight attendant came to my seat, and I explained what happened. To my surprise, his first question was whether I had discussed it with the offending passenger. I told him I had not because I didn’t feel the passenger was solely at fault (not to mention you never know how people will react, and I had no interest in an inflight issue). In my mind, it was Delta’s seat-reclining equipment design that had caused the incident.

The flight attendant told me he had never seen anything like this happen before and went to speak with the flight leader to determine the best way to handle the situation. When he returned, he offered to lavish me with 1,000 Delta SkyMiles.

Based on TPG’s current valuation for Delta SkyMiles, his generous offer amounted to a whopping $15. That’s probably about 1% of the cost of a replacement laptop.

Of course, it’s not his fault; as a flight attendant, he can only offer up to a certain amount of points for “customer inconvenience.” His advice was to take photos and contact Delta customer service after I landed. Even though he hadn’t seen this exact situation in the past, he told me he had heard of Delta offering assistance in similar instances.

Related: Is it OK to recline your seat?


When I landed for my layover in Atlanta, that’s exactly what I did. I stopped by one of Delta’s customer service desks, and the agent told me to speak with someone at baggage claim when I reached my final destination. I thanked him and made my way to the gate for the last leg of my flight.

Getting assistance at my home airport

When I arrived home, I went to Delta’s baggage services desk and spoke to an agent there. She had also never seen a situation like mine and called over one of Delta’s Red Coats — Delta’s top problem-solving customer service agents — for assistance.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport

After describing what had happened, the Red Coat was very sympathetic but told me he couldn’t do much for me either. The most he was authorized to give as compensation for the damaged property was $100. He explained that most damaged property happens when a flight attendant accidentally spills a drink on someone’s clothing or baggage. In those cases, Delta pays to clean and replace the item.

Knowing that repairing or replacing my Macbook would cost well more than $100, he took down my information. He promised to check into my situation with Delta customer service and get back to me the following week.

His response, unfortunately, amounted to Delta’s canned responses regarding baggage liability. Essentially, Delta does not assume responsibility for unchecked items that are damaged in flight unless they are given to Delta personnel for storage. At that point, I wished I had just accepted the $100.


Technically, I agree with Delta that they were not directly at fault for the incident as they didn’t physically mishandle my computer. However, I also don’t think it was my fault or the expedient seat-reclining passenger’s fault. We were both doing things the seats were designed to do — working on the tray table and reclining in the seat.

Maybe it was just a one-in-a-million freak accident, but I certainly had hoped Delta would attempt to make things right with more than $15 worth of SkyMiles. I suppose I could have redeemed those SkyMiles to drown my sorrows with a premium drink purchase in the Delta SkyClub, but for now, they are sitting with my other SkyMiles waiting to be used.

Delta airlines airplanes are seen parked at Hartsfield-
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. CAMILO FREEDMAN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES

Rectifying the situation

I haven’t used or earned any SkyMiles for Delta flights since this incident. Delta is truly one of my favorite airlines. However, since Delta didn’t give me much of a solution, the only recourse I could find to mentally make myself feel like I had evened the scales was to take my business to other airlines for a little while. Maybe that sounds petty, but it was the best I could come up with until I could get over it.

Life moves on. I got a new laptop, and I have a Delta flight coming up next week.

Stopping laptop destruction before it starts

In addition to having a Delta ticket and a new laptop in my possession, I have a plan to stop incidents like this from happening again.

First, I sometimes leave my laptop in my carry-on baggage during flights. If I don’t get it out, there is no chance of damaging it. If I do need to use my laptop, I make sure it is never pushed all the way back on the tray table. I did replace my Macbook with another of the same size, but I am contemplating getting a smaller one next time to mitigate the chance of something like this happening again.

I’m also trying to work up the nerve to kindly ask the person in front of me for a heads-up before they recline their seat. However, I’m honestly not quite there yet, as you never know who is sitting in front of you or how they’ll react to any level of request.


Credit cards with purchase protection and extended warranties

Of course, I’m sure to purchase pricey items like laptops with a card that offers built-in purchase protection. Many credit cards come with purchase protection benefits. If something you purchased with the credit card is damaged, stolen or, in the case of some cards, lost, you can be reimbursed for the cost of repairing or replacing the item for some period of time after the purchase.

Those protections don’t last forever, but they can help in the event of damage occurring within the time frame of coverage. Or, at least until more airlines install “pre-reclined” seats in economy.

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Delta Air Lines did not respond to a request for comment for this story.