Photo: Atstock Productions

Why Everyone Arguing About Reclining Airplane Seats Is Missing the Point

by Matt Hershberger Sep 10, 2014

I’m a nice guy.

I hold the door open for old ladies. I listen to my friends’ problems and offer thoughtful advice. I donate to charity. I give pet owners a smile instead of a scowl when their big, stupid dog slobbers all over my goddamn hand.

And I recline my seat every single time I’m on an airplane.

This is apparently now a part of our national conversation because nothing else pressing is going on that we need to talk about (Ferguson? Who’s Ferguson? You mean the annoying brother from Clarissa Explains it All?). In the past couple weeks, three planes have been diverted because passengers acted like petulant children when the person in front of them reclined. They fought; the planes were forced to land.

The internet exploded (as it has before). This past February, the conservative website The Federalist published an article titled We Need to Come to a National Consensus on Airplane Seat Reclining.

Pardon me, The Federalist, but no we abso-fucking-lutely do not. This is an invented issue. This is not a big deal because reclining your seat on an airplane is not a big deal. There are literally — and my use of the word literally here is not hyperbolic — millions of more important things we need to come to a consensus on than airline-seat etiquette. I would list all of the millions here, but I have a word limit and a personal policy against making lists to disprove dumb statements.

I say this using my authority as a tall, overweight person. I am 6’3’’, which makes me eight inches taller than the average American male, and I weigh 220 pounds. I recognize there are other people who are taller and heavier than me, and I understand that not all larger-than-average individuals will agree with me. But suffice it to say, I’m often intensely uncomfortable on airplanes. The seats are too small for me, and I usually have to angle my legs either into the aisle — where they’re hit by the beverage cart — or into the wall — where they never quite fit — all because my legs lack the ability to pass through solid objects.

Sometimes, the person in front of me leans back and I have slightly less space. Do I rage against that person for their selfishness? No. Because I have a neat little trick I can do that provides me with more space: I can lean my chair back, too.

Are we mad at the people who put us in this sardine-can prison? Are we mad at the people who designed airline seats using the physical rules of the M.C. Escher Universe? No. We’re mad at the guy who wants a little more space.

When I fly, I tend to resign myself to discomfort for the duration. I get up and walk around so I don’t get deep vein thrombosis and die. Usually the only place to walk to is the bathroom, which I also can barely fit in. If anyone tells you they’ve joined the Mile High Club, by the way, don’t believe them unless they’re Keebler Elves. There’s no way two full-size people can fit inside those aluminum closets.

But discomfort is part and parcel of modern flying. It’s there along with taking your shoes off when going through security and getting the most intimate areas of your body looked at by a stranger using one of those newfangled peeping-Tom machines.

There are so many little indignities involved in flying these days: paying exorbitant amounts to bring any piece of luggage that can hold more than a book of matches, getting eye-fucked by lecherous security employees, being treated like a war criminal by airline employees, having to turn off your Kindle pre-flight for “security reasons,” not being able to say “The real security risk is what I’ll do if I don’t get to read Harry Potter during takeoff” without getting tasered by a burly ex-Marine Air Marshal, having to connect through the Atlanta airport, and so on.

But the indignity we’ve chosen as the last straw is when our fellow passengers try to alleviate their suffering by desperately squeaking their seat back three and a half inches. Are we mad at the people who put us in this sardine-can prison? Are we mad at the people who designed airline seats using the physical rules of the M.C. Escher Universe? No. We’re mad at the guy who wants a little more space.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the CEOs of all the airlines gathered together last year around a Strangelovian war room table and, after worrying about rising customer dissatisfaction, decided to create the nefarious Knee Defender contraption that’s caused a number of these passenger-on-passenger skirmishes. “Maybe if we make them think this is each other’s fault,” they said, “they’ll stop complaining about us and fight each other!”

And, oh, how it worked. Instead of opting for more comfortable (not to mention more environmentally friendly) modes of transportation, we went to war with each other. They’ve successfully wagged the dog.

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