Fighting About Reclining Seats! Really? Yes, Really!!!

September 3, 2014

By now you‘ve surely heard about the new battle for freedom and personal space aka Reclining Air Wars. I first heard about this particular form of folderol when I read Flight Diverted When Passengers Feud Over Reclining Seat, by Eyder Peralta for the Two-Way at NPR on August 26. The down low? On United Airlines Flight 1462, a Row 11 passenger threw a hissy fit when the Row 12 passenger behind her used his Knee Defender—it costs $21.95—to prevent Ms. Row 11 from reclining. Water from Row 11 ended up on Row 12 (I guess there’s no drought at 36,000 feet), the pilot said “enough,” the plane made an unscheduled landing in Chicago, and Rows 11 and 12 each had one empty seat for the rest of the trip.

I assumed this story was a pile of nonsense, but it’s got legs. Reportedly, two more planes have been diverted and “lightened.” And, on September 1, New York Times business travel columnist, great writer—and my friend—Joe Sharkey wrote Business Fliers on a Budget, and Seats That Don’t Budge. That’s cred! (Because Mark Rubin Writes searches out what you won’t readily find, here’s Stephen Mihm for BloombergView, with The Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat Has a Back Story. Learn everything you wanted to know about why we have reclining seats. And, for those with a passion for markets, read Two Innovative Solutions from The Economist on September 3.)

Now, I don’t want to make light of this situation, but … get an effing life, people! Behave yourselves! Rare is the domestic flight that lasts more than 3-4 hours. With or without your tray table and a laptop, it’s crowded back in steerage. Yes, it’s more crowded when the person in front of you reclines, especially when he or she is, how do we say it appropriately, weight-challenged! (Seat backs in coach are skinny, with lots of give. If they were stiff and sturdy like first class seat backs, we’d all have our knees next to our noses!) Still, figure it out!!!

I use math to deal with expected discomfort lasting more than two hours. I’ll be 57 in several days. Leaving out the first 18 years of my life, and assuming eight resting hours per day (a dream for me), I’ve had more than 227,000 conscious, adult hours, and hope for another 150,000 or so. So what’s three or four uncomfortable ones? Really?

I also have a theory about all of this bad behavior. Here goes:

We do all have our limits. (The other night I went off on the Time Warner guy, whose number was on the Comcast website, when our phone/Internet/television was down. The dude was insistent that the merger had happened, but that he could not help me, just the same! The merger has not happened, no one can explain why Comcast’s number took me to Time Warner, and cable guys on the phone drive me nutso!) Digression aside, for many people, I think, being herded into a thin tube that will take them somewhere, without any ability to control anything along the way, tests their psyches. We’re in a thin tube which goes up, comes down, and stays up in between! How? We also get lots of orders: Tray tables in the upright and locked position; Return to your seat; Turn off your cell phone! Then there are the unknowns. When the pilot does his “flight attendants, prepare for arrival and cross-check,” what is “cross-check?” Three hundred plus flights, and I’m clueless.

The bottom line? Air travel dehumanizes us, especially in coach. Most of us have plenty of reserves, and we take the process in stride. Not so for everyone! And me? If you’re sitting in front of me, recline away. No worries, truly; I’m easy! But, if you’re behind me, your youngster is in that seat, and s/he is kicking on my seat back, 6&#3@#^7!

P.S. Joe Sharkey is definitely worthy of your time, traveler or not. His insights are keen, he writes very well, and he’s not shy!

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