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February 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


[Illustration by Scott Garrett, Boston Globe]

I have long dreaded the torture airplane passengers inflict on those just behind by insisting on reclining their seats. I once thought that when the flight attendants come down the aisle to serve meals, you’re entitled to a respite, since everyone understood it’s impossible to eat in coach when the passenger in front of you is reclining. But with the disappearance of airplane meals, even that courtesy is gone.

I could write at length about everything that’s wrong with subjecting people to reclined seats. However, now I don’t have to, thanks to Dan Kois. In an excellent piece in Slate last week, he nails it.

His opening:

The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.

Why? She’s a recliner.

For the five minutes after takeoff, every passenger on an airliner exists in a state of nature. Everyone is equally as uncomfortable as everyone else—well, at least everyone who doesn’t have the advantage of first class seating or the disadvantage of being over 6 feet tall. The passengers are blank slates, subjects of an experiment in morality which begins the moment the seat-belt light turns off.

Ding! Instantly the jerk in 11C reclines his seat all the way back. The guy in 12C, his book shoved into his face, reclines as well. 13C goes next. And soon the reclining has cascaded like rows of dominos to the back of the plane, where the poor bastards in the last row see their personal space reduced to about a cubic foot.

Kois then moves to the key point. How much comfort does one gain by reclining five degrees? How can it be worth the inconvenience caused to others?

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same. But of course someone always will recline her seat, like the people in the first row, or the woman in front of me, whom I hate. (At least we’re not in the middle seat. People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.)

But, as Kois points out, blame should be heaped on the airlines, not the passengers.

The problem isn’t with passengers, though the evidence demonstrates that many passengers are little better than sociopaths acting only for their own good. The problem is with the plane. In a closed system in which just one recliner out of 200 passengers can ruin it for dozens of people, it is too much to expect that everyone will act in the interest of the common good. People recline their seats because their seats recline. But why on earth do seats recline? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if seats simply didn’t?


It’s time for an outright ban on reclining seats on airplanes. I’m not demanding that airlines rip out the old seats and install new ones; let’s just extend the requirement that seats remain upright during takeoff and landing through the entire flight. (Unlike the stupid electronic-devices rules, there is an actual good reason for this regulation: Upright seats are safer in a crash, and allow for easier evacuation.) To those who say such a rule is unenforceable, I respond: Kick. Kick. Kick.

Next topic: Children who kick the back of your seat through the entire flight. There is no way to repay the favor. Reclining won’t bother them. They’re small. It will just make you more miserable. In any case, blame not the kids. It’s the parents’ fault.

Categories: Flying, Travel
  1. Daniel R. Grayson
    February 27, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    I’d probably have to stop flying if seats didn’t recline, since it hurts my back to be so upright for a long time.

  2. Ron
    February 28, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    That’s interesting, because my experience has been the opposite. I rarely have sufficient back support in airplane seats. I often put a sweater or pillow (when there are pillows) or something behind me for better support. Having to lean back just makes things worse.

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