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Airplane seat recline rage misses the point: The airlines, not passengers, are at fault

When we feel someone’s knees (or fists) in our spines, we have the choice to double down on defending our space, or to accommodate the human being next to us.

A few years ago, I found out that I had been doing an unforgivable thing.

My crime, as well as that of thousands of etiquette-bereft cretins like me? Reclining an airline seat. I learned of my wrongdoing when a debate erupted on my Facebook feed, and from the reaction I got when I admitted to having occasionally made use of the recline feature, you’d think I’d confessed to climbing over elderly passengers to beat them in the bathroom line when the “buckle seat belt” light was turned off.

In the airline seat wars, why are we turning on each other instead of the warlords who control our cramped in-air prison cells to begin with?

Another passenger had her ignorant bliss ruined just last week. She reclined her seat only to have its back punched repeatedly by the man sitting behind her, who apparently was in the last row and unable to recline his own seat. The woman recorded video of the seat-punching on her phone and posted it to Twitter, probably under the incorrect assumption that public sympathy would be with her.

But for every bit of outrage expressed at the passenger USING HIS FISTS TO PUMMEL HER SEAT, there was just as much vitriol aimed her way. As one Twitter user commented: "Reclining your seat when you are flying coach is literally the most selfish inconsiderate thing a person can do. It literally ruins the travel experience of the person sitting behind you.”

Really? Reclining your seat is literally the most selfish and inconsiderate thing a person can do? Is this level of hyperbole absolutely necessary? And more to the point, is seat reclining what ruins the travel experience? Please. Whatever the considerations to weigh in whether to recline or not to recline, it’s essential that we passengers keep our eye on the ball — and our rage focused where it belongs. In the airline seat wars, why are we turning on each other instead of the warlords who control our cramped in-air prison cells to begin with?

AIrline seats continue to shrink even as we pay dearly for things that used to be included in a standard ticket: a box of snacks, carry-on luggage, the privilege of choosing the tiny space in which to wedge ourselves. And don’t start throwing numbers at me demonstrating how much cheaper airline travel has gotten since 1939. Technology gets cheaper; that’s what technology does. But it should get cheaper and better, not less convenient, less comfortable and more likely to incite violence.

The fact is, airline seats are (mostly) made with a recline function. If it’s rude to take advantage of that built-in feature, then perhaps airlines should stop offering reclining seats, or give passengers more instruction on the proper way to use them?

Or, here’s a really novel concept: Maybe airlines can work to create an atmosphere in which people are just a little less aggravated and pissed-off from the get-go. I don’t think most people mean to be rude; I think we’re usually just confused and trying to get through a flight with the least possible damage to ourselves. Unfortunately, being shuffled through a dehumanizing security line, nickel-and-dimed over every baseline “perk” and crammed into tiny spaces with complete strangers doesn’t do much to create a sense of community and cooperation.

Whether it’s passengers who talk so loudly I can hear them over the music in my earbuds, who insist on trying to squeeze ill-fitting bags in overhead compartments despite being repeatedly asked to check them in or who dig into hot meatball subs right after takeoff, flying puts us in close quarters with people whose company we might not otherwise choose. That’s the nature of group transportation.

Before the seriousness of my sin of reclining was pointed out, I hadn’t really thought about it too much. The seats reclined; ergo, sometimes I reclined them and sometimes didn’t. After all, if the person in front of me reclines, I experience no anger or sense of injustice, just as when the person sitting next to me is big, or a baby, or a big baby.

Those two or three inches of reclining action provide at least a tiny edge of seat to lean a weary forehead against, or may allow a middle-row-dweller just a smidgen of escape when wedged between two beefy, broad-shouldered men in the human Tetris game that is a modern economy flight. (And if you’re one of those beefy, broad-shouldered men, you are welcome to recline back into my space or take up more armrest than is your “fair share”; I’m sure I’ll find a way to survive.)

I don’t consider it a personal infringement on my rights as a traveler when someone else’s space needs conflict with mine I’ve never thought of myself as entitled to any particular comfort level on a flight: I just sum up my surroundings and make the best of them with whatever tools I have, whether that be earbuds, reclining seats or sad airline Cabernet.

Image: Meagan Francis
An unidentified passenger with a hangover violates writer Meagan Francis' seat space.Meagan Francis

When a very hungover man passed out on my shoulder half an hour after takeoff and remained there for the duration of a three-hour flight last spring, I suppose I could have punched him. But instead I let him stay, posted a photo of the top of his head and my wry smile on Instagram — and got a good laugh out of the whole experience.

Indeed, when we feel someone’s knees (or fists) in our spines, we have a choice: to grimly double-down on our “rights” while tweeting our outrage, or to say, “Oh my goodness, am I in your space? So sorry about that” and put the seat back up. Doubling-down on your freedoms as a ticket-holding passenger may be your prerogative, but it’s also pointless. Miles up in the air, all we really have is each other. And it’s in our power to try to make one another’s flight experiences a little more pleasant and human.

Maybe for some of us, that means thinking before we recline. And maybe for the rest of us, it means calming the heck down when someone else does.