One of the more trendy controversies in the travel world is the fight over whether you should recline your seat on an airplane. An article in Slate (which was, in proper Slate fashion, hyperbolically titled “The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization”) decried seat-recliners as “evil,” and went on to say, “People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.” People who recline have also been referred to as “psychopaths,” and one particularly irritating company created something called the “Knee Defender,” a device that you can insert into the seat in front of you which makes it impossible for the person in front of you to lean their chair back. Knee defenders have been known to start fights on airplanes.
I personally find this all to be a little overblown, but as this is a site on ethical travel, I feel the need to address it.
What should I do regarding reclining seats?
Full disclosure: I am 6’3”, 225 lbs, and I have always applied a Golden Rule standard to airline travel. I find flying miserable, and don’t want to make it more miserable for anyone. That said, when the person in front of me reclines, it doesn’t bother me at all. My long legs aren’t more cramped, and I generally don’t feel I was using the four inches or so that I lost near their head. If I do feel cramped, I’ll lean back myself, but mostly, I just accept that life is suffering — especially life on an airplane — and that what really matters is how we respond to that suffering.
Which is why I was surprised to find out that this was a thing. I’m theoretically one of the most wronged people when it comes to reclining seats, but it never bothered me. That’s the difficulty of the Golden Rule: some people have higher standards for what they’d want done unto them than I do. (There is, by the way, one argument in favor of reclining your seats that I think is atrocious: “I bought the seat, so I can do what I want with it.” Purchasing a product does not give you any moral right to put someone else into intense discomfort. That’s actually psychopathic.)
And this is fair: The polling geniuses over at FiveThirtyEight did a poll on what people think of seat reclining, and they found that 41% of flyers think reclining is rude. The rest don’t mind. Far more people (73%) thought it was rude to wake someone up to go for a walk around the cabin — which, by the way, strikes me as even more justifiable than the recline, as not moving in an airplane can lead to sometimes-deadly deep vein thrombosis. The highest number of people (82%) said it was rude to “knowingly bring unruly children” onto the plane. Which strikes me as most justifiable — what, unruly kids shouldn’t be allowed to move from point A to point B?
This proves, if anything, that people on airplanes are just furious all the time, and are desperately seeking something to hate. So the Golden Rule doesn’t work here, because you don’t know the mind of the person behind you — they may just be a slow-cooking pot of rage.
I think the answer is simple. The nicest thing to do if you want to recline is to simply ask the person behind you if they’d mind. Lean back slowly so you don’t fuck up their laptop or jolt any liquid on their tray into their lap. All of the taller people that I spoke to said they usually don’t mind if someone leans back (tall people have already accepted discomfort on airplanes), with the understanding that they will be leaning back as well. One mother I spoke to, however, says this: “On little planes with sub-two hour travel times, [reclining your seat is] unnecessary and extra cramped. Add a kid in a carseat and it’s just a no-go. My baby carseat wouldn’t allow for the seat in front to recline; the toddler seat does, but barely.” So maybe be cool to traveling moms and don’t lean back.
If you don’t like it when someone in front of you reclines, just ask them politely if they wouldn’t. Some people may refuse. That’s okay. Comfort yourself with the fact that at least they are slightly more comfortable, and that they are just as human as you. And you don’t know what their deal is: they may have back problems. Their discomfort from not reclining may outweigh your discomfort when they do.
I think there’s something we should note here, though:
The seat recliners are not the problem.
Some have rightfully pointed out that this shouldn’t be a passenger-versus-passenger issue, but rather a passenger-versus-airline issue. It’s actually kind of a perfect microcosm for modern America: set up the system so that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for everyone, and when one person tries to make things better for themselves at the expense of someone else (whether it’s through a criminal act or through a selfish vote), a conflict arises not between the participants and the system, but between the participants itself, when at its core, the system is to blame. The airlines could easily provide more seat space, or simply make more comfortable seats.
But it would be too simplistic to say that airlines are evil companies that are trying to distract us from their flaws by making us fight amongst ourselves. Airlines are notoriously difficult to make profitable, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase profits wherever possible (It would also make sense to acknowledge that airlines are public services that should maybe be publicly subsidized, but let’s not get into that). And adding a few extra seats to every plane makes a big difference.
It’s also worthwhile to note that our discomfort is the environment’s gain: as I noted a few weeks ago in my article on low-carbon emissions travel, the more seats the airlines cram onto planes, the more ways a flight splits its carbon emissions. Fewer flights means less emissions, less emissions means a lower chance of truly horrific climate catastrophe over the next couple hundred years.
All of which is to say that airline discomfort may be a good thing. It gives you an excuse to travel by train. Train seats have lower emissions than airline seats, and they’re also significantly more comfortable — a person who leans back on a train doesn’t invade the space of the passenger behind them at all. Also, you can bring your own food and booze onto Amtrak, which is neat.
My call is this: lean or don’t lean, just be courteous and ask the people around you. If they’re mean to you, just let it slide. Don’t assume they’re evil assholes. Just assume they fucking hate airplanes.
Featured photo by Ronald Sarayudej