Proper conduct in airline seating has become an issue lately, which only goes to show that modern humans will never run out of things to get upset about. Additionally, the intensity of feelings surrounding said conduct suggests we’ve just about exhausted our patience with the insolvability of Ferguson, ISIS, the southern border, lost government emails, government overreach, tax inversions, climate change, Ukraine and the objectifying of women.
At headline-making issue, astonishingly, is under what FAA-approved circumstances economy-conscious airline travelers should recline their seat backs.
I concede there’s a certain bizarre presumptuousness to the entire concept. Strangers who would never conceive of invading another’s personal space while upright think it’s perfectly all right — without so much as an “incoming!” alert — to drop their heads practically into fellow travelers’ laps the moment the pilot retracts the landing gear, on the theory that if the airline hadn’t intended them to achieve maximum supine-ity, they wouldn’t have installed the little look-out-below triggering device in the first place.
The long-simmering war in the coach cabin between the recliners and the uprights flared into an outright scuffle last weekend when, on a United flight bound from Newark to Denver, a woman passenger’s attempt to achieve an obtuse body angle was blocked by the man behind her having affixed a so-called “Knee Defender” to the arms of his tray table. The adjustable and exquisitely passive-aggressive “must-have travel gadget” (USA Today) — just $21.95 at GadgetDuck.com — enables its user to limit the recline-ability of the seat ahead, including absolutely none at all.
The Knee Defender sounds like the perfect device for these modern times, when we casually broadcast instant opinions to anonymous audiences on Twitter or attached to news stories, but cannot muster the courage — or the respect for others — to engage in a few moments of personal, one-to-one communications.
Speaking of which: The man, who was using his laptop, refused flight attendants’ directions to remove the blocks, prompting the would-be recliner to dump a glass of water on him. The flight crew regained control by putting down in Chicago and having the scrapping twosome, both 48, taken off.
Let this be a lesson to all of us.
While I lack a fixed or even particularly strong opinion about the rights of the recline-prone — generally, however, on flights of less than two hours, I err on the side of uprightness — I am firm about the dictates of etiquette, courtesy being the oil that allows civilization’s gears to engage smoothly.
Here are a couple of examples of how that could work.
Say you are the passenger contemplating tipping back. The reason is immaterial, and none needs to be proffered.
You turn to the traveler behind you, the innocent whose tight space you are about to compromise, and declare your intentions. You don’t need permission. The aforementioned silver button verifies your right. But decency and the interest of peace requires the warning, accompanied by an inquiry about whether just this moment would be convenient. Perhaps the person behind you is using his laptop, or has a bottle of something from the gate convenience shop open on his tray.
Assuming agreement on a course of action, you are free to engage the recliner button without guilt or further discussion.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong, as the passenger potentially on the receiving end of the reclining action, to establish before the plane leaves the ground — when for elusive reasons, travelers seem to be more cordial — that, should urge to recline arise, you would be grateful for a heads-up.
After all, flights are uncommonly crowded these days. Airlines have maximized the number of rows on each plane while shrinking the space for each derriere and cutting back on the amenities, meaning, under the best circumstances, the potential for hell at 35,000 feet is ever-lurking.
Of course, airlines could take a few rows out, give everybody traveling economy a few more inches of legroom and reduce both the friction caused by aggressive, unannounced reclining and the market for contraband (most airlines prohibit them) Knee Defenders. But then that vacation flight for you, mom and the kids to tour the historic homes of the presidents from Virginia might run you another $150. Each. And you’re still stuck in coach.
So, you can be polite and mindful of others and keep enough in your budget to bring home that replica Jefferson revolving bookstand from the Monticello gift shop, or you can fuss until the airlines give you those three extra precious inches at $50 a pop.
Ah, who am I kidding? The pair dumped in Chicago? They were deployed in United’s “economy plus” section, which, with four precious extra inches between rows, ought to have established a recliner-war DMZ.
But, no. In this age of communication where anyone can vent electronically to all points of the globe, but no one knows how to talk to the human person next to them, every clash of entitlements is bound to end badly.