Airtight: Decline to Recline by Anna Krauthamer
It was perfect. When I checked in at Heathrow, the man working at the gate told me that as of then, I had my entire row to myself. I asked him if he could keep it like that, he laughed, I laughed, I got my boarding pass. When I got to my window seat a few hours later I waited, but nobody sat down next to me. The man had actually, inexplicably, given me an entire row in an otherwise completely packed plane. The pilot made an announcement: apparently when passengers switch their seats around it “unbalances the plane.” I had never felt such passion for flight safety before. Like I’ve said, it was perfect. But as they do say, things are oft too good to be true, what goes up must go down, etc. It all changed, so quickly. The person in front of me reclined.
The most frequently cited arguments for reclining one’s seat are that it’s a right, that the recline button is there for a reason, and that I paid for my seat, and I’m going to recline it! The validity of these arguments? Questionable, at best.
According to Wikipedia, a constitutional right is a legal right of its citizens (and possibly others within its jurisdiction) protected by a sovereignty’s constitution. Our sovereignty’s constitution protects our rights to be rude to waitstaff, not to call our mothers back, and to make severely pregnant women stand on the subway. Also according to Wikipedia, the United States Constitution has “several articles and amendments” that establish constitutional rights. As grateful as we all surely are to our Founding Fathers, we need not exercise our constitutional rights at all time if they mean doing something shitty.
In a similar vein, the recline button’s presence perhaps does not require its usage. The reason the recline button exists is not because you must use it; it’s so that the seat can recline. This is a fine but essential distinction. Passengers have agency. They can opt out of reclining for grander reasons, and the recline button does not compel but merely offers.
The argument with the most logical and moral flaws is the one that rests on paying for your seat. Everyone else on the plane paid for their seat too, of course. Thus, to defend your individual decision on grounds that pretend to be similarly individualistic but are in fact totally uniform is illegitimate. Arguments like these aim to disguise what happens when you recline: you chose your own superficial comfort over someone else’s. Because the person who suffers when you recline is, literally, at the back of your mind, you can ignore the fact that you’re putting yourself before others. While you’re stretching out as far as your seat will take you, the people behind you are hating their lives a little bit as they awkwardly maneuver their cramped bodies over the stranger sitting next to them every single time they need to get up to go to the bathroom.
Let’s pull some numbers. Some background information: seat pitch is the distance between a given point on one seat and the identical point on the seat in front. The inches of decline are, well, the amount of inches the seat reclines. The source I’ve consulted, American Airline’s fleet statistics, also list stats for seat width, which seems relevant, because it helps us paint a picture of the overall level of discomfort with which we’re working.
The seat pitch in first class for international flights is usually 62 inches; for domestic, first class lies at around 42 inches. For economy, though, the seat pitch is consistently between 30 and 36 inches, whether it’s an international or domestic flight. So you never get that much room, whether you’re flying to Florida or to Paris. Except for some seats in some first class flights that can recline to complete horizontal, all other seats, first class and economy alike, recline to 6 inches. When you recline in economy, you’re reducing the person behind you’s space by up to 20%. The space that person now has to extend their legs, store their bags, and get in and out of their seat is shorter in length than the average size of a five year old child.This means that when you recline in economy, you feel like you’re in first class, but your victim, suffice it to say, does not feel the same.
It is true that the person behind you can recline. So can the next person, and the next, and the next, until you get to that very last guy, sitting in the back row, whose seat probably doesn’t even have a recline button because there’d be no point. Some might say that this unlucky, unwitting flyer should have to suffer so that all before him can recline; he’s lost to a cause for the greater good. I disagree. The utilitarianism employed in the “it’s either him or me” argument just quells that twinge of guilt I believe one must feel as their seat begins to descend. A strong statement, but one I think is true: to ignore that person in the back is to say that your comfort is more important that his or hers. Whether or not to recline turns into whether or not to be compassionate. And after all, he paid just as much for his ticket as you did for yours.
An airplane’s a small and surprising stage for such big themes, but that’s why, I think, those who recline can live with themselves (too far?): they’re able to disconnect their action from its implications because we don’t often think of sitting upright on an airplane as a way to be compassionate. If you feel like you must recline, still, then so it will be. Know that you’re making at least one person’s (the martyr’s in the back) life a bit more miserable than it already may be. And then recline, sip on the airplane’s cheap boxed wine, pop a Valium, do whatever you want to do to make yourself comfortable. You can’t see me, sitting behind you, but I can see you. I can see you.