Is it ever appropriate to recline one’s seat during air travel?
Even though your average Travel Belle is generally smaller than her Travel Beau counterparts, physically speaking (I personally am 5’4″), when it comes to a The Great Seat Back Debate this small belle has a big opinion.
The questions revolve around whether or not anyone should recline their airline seats. Who is and who isn’t entitled to more airline legroom? How much space are we really talking about here anyway? The discussion of whether to recline or not has reached new heights over what is considered “correct” at 35,000 feet.
The subject and the intense feelings surrounding it come as no surprise. I was on the front lines of this battle several weeks ago on both legs of round-trip air travel from Charlotte to Rome. Both were unequivocally the most uncomfortable, potentially volatile overseas flights I had ever been on. Why? Because of the escalation of seat wars.
What I take issue with are blanket assertions made about what is “rude,” “common sense,” “totally fine,” or “my right.” Humanity on any given airplane is wildly diverse; we are different people with different backgrounds and different perspectives. The fact is that whenever things are totally arbitrary, it is only natural for humans to arbitrate. Besides there is nothing natural or easy about being bivouacked together in a metal tube hurling 600 miles per hour through the atmosphere.
After giving this a lot of thought my solution is quite simple:
At any given time in coach class, either all passengers should be required to recline, or no passengers should be allowed to recline.
On the surface use of a reclining mechanism in an airplane seat, appears to be a kind gesture by the airline industry, a reassuring nod to comfort, as if to say, “We care about you!” But I seriously doubt there are many of us left who buy into that.
How I see it is that the fact that seats can be reclined at will is shirking responsibility from airlines to passenger, and extremely unfair to fliers of all shapes and sizes, and I would guess to the flight attendants who attend to them.
Setting up Camp: Charlotte to Rome
I watched as the couple who were going to be seated directly in front of me for the duration of the ten hour flight came aboard the plane and settled in. Upon spotting me, they looked very glad to see me. He, a western European gentleman with an easy smile was affable, his expression, practically jubilant; his wife, who glanced towards me as he continued to stuff their carry-ons in the overhead compartment, was perceptibly relieved. Naively I thought perhaps I knew them, or maybe I reminded them of somebody.
While I was still thinking how friendly they were, he reclined his seat back as far as it would go. Yes, the one person in the entire cabin who had to be asked to put his seat up by the flight attendant before take off, was right in front of me. (I bet he’s always in front of you too, right?) This perpetrator just happened to have salt and pepper hair and a nice smile. Sure enough as soon as we were airborne, he once again put his seat back as far as it would go.
Trouble on the Right Flank
At this point I was more aware of the family of four who were sitting next to me in three seats, one of whom was a baby of the kind who can walk, who isn’t really a baby at all except by airline standards. She, adorable, but wiggly and tense sitting on her mother’s lap, was working her way into a frenzied shrieking festival that would be sustained with only occasional intermissions for the duration of the flight.
It turned out that the reclined seat in front of me and the screaming toddler who wasn’t being allowed to toddle, were only the beginning of my problems. The couple whom I will refer to as the duo of darkness (I never would get a look at the man seated directly behind me) for the remainder of this story, had slithered in unnoticed.
Surprise attack from the Southern Front
Mealtime, where we all ate like little T-rexes, elbows pressed in at our chests, with insubstantial cutlery, came and went. I removed my contact lenses, took a sleeping pill, setting out to endure along with 400 or so of my new closest friends, our flight into darkness over the Atlantic. I wrapped myself in a blanket, and… I admit it, I reclined.
Just as I had closed my eyes waiting for the haze of the sleeping pill to overtake me, an index finger with a bone to pick, darted through the vulnerable space between the seats that I had opened up in my reclination. The entity poked me, fast and with all the brute strength a good finger poking can have.
Startled, I sat up. Because of the presumption and intimacy of a poke styled in such a fashion, my first thought was that it was a family member and something must be really wrong. I then followed the line of fire, angling my head to look back behind me. It was there that I met the steely glare and scrunched up face of the designated finger poker, the female half of the dark duo.
Without trace of politesse or even any voice, she mouthed, “PUT YOUR SEAT UP,” gesturing with several upward kicky motions with the palm of her hand that was home to the finger. She looked at me as if she were the one with every right to be the stunned one between us, as if I have committed a heinous crime against humanity and her kinfolk, or butted in front of her in the line at WalMart.
This is where I made the decision to avoid taking a path that could land the entire plane full of people at the nearest airport, and me and the dark duo on the national news. Nope, I knew the only right thing to do was to let go of any feelings of air rage and suck it up.
In other words like the good polite solid citizen wimp a** I am, I obeyed. I put my seat up.
Unfortunately the familiar feelings of shame, and just wanting everything to be ok that initially flooded me, lingered, apparently taking the form of some kind of adrenaline. I say this because in spite of the sleeping pill, I would not fall asleep until 7 hours or so later, just seconds before the plane’s landing gear went down.
What is wrong with this picture? From this female’s perspective, everything. If you want to debate the iniquities in our culture based on sex, size and appearances, I have a list as long as my arm, probably even as long as your arm too.
It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for how ridiculous and uncomfortable it must be for a tall person to sit comfortably in coach class for a long flight. But what about my comfort and basic rights, and those of the many others on any given flight of whom none of us know their real stories of bad backs, necks and who knows what other issues?
The Western Front, aka:the flight home
Two days before leaving Italy to fly home, I injured myself on a curb while visiting Verona. I was on crutches, but my fellow passengers couldn’t see this as they filled in the seats around us for the marathon flight. Even if they had, I’m not convinced very many would care. (But based on experience I know a few of them would have.) After my injury I contacted the airline and had tried to no avail to switch to a more comfortable seat, such as one in the bulkhead.
This flight was only slightly better than the first, as far as seat wars. It lacked the factor of physical intimidation, and instead of sitting in a middle row with a screaming baby who wasn’t a baby at all by anyone’s standards except the airlines, I was in a window seat next to my own daughter.
Neither of us were able to recline at all, our seats were both physically immovable. I’m pretty sure this was due to the fact that the uber prepared travelers behind us had invested in some “knee weaponry” to defend their legroom, such as Gadget Duck’s Knee Defender.
For the airlines to not have clear rules for this reclining seat back business ignores a big responsibility. As long as people who fly have different ideas about these things – which will be forever – passing the problem along to air passengers to arbitrate among themselves is a losing and risky proposition. What’s left of today’s friendly skies does not need to contend with being what amounts to an unsupervised flying preschool, a form of social Darwinism.
Cease Fire: A few ideas
If it’s that unreasonable for a tall person to sit in one of the “less premium” airline seats, there should be a more reasonably priced alternative to offering them the option to buy a business or first class ticket. A good start would be making all those new “premium economy” seats available for a reasonable charge available first to people with real legroom or other health challenges.
Or how about the airlines come up with some hard and fast rules, about when it is required to “put your seat in the upright position,” and especially in the case of long flights, when it is required to recline. No finger poking allowed, or even encouraged.
What are your thoughts on the battle over airline legroom? Is it right or rude to recline airline seats?