More than a decade ago I unexpectedly found myself at the back of a cramped regional jet on a flight from the Midwest to Newark. The airlines had just begun using puddle jumpers for flights with durations of two hours or more, and I wasn’t prepared or conditioned for the claustrophobia I experienced. Aggravating my feelings of suffocation was my supersized seat mate whose shoulders and arms pushed against mine, denying me even a fractional inch of our joint arm rest. The summer heat was unbearable.
When our plane reached its flying altitude, the young woman in front of me abruptly put her seat back and bashed my knee. Something in me snapped: I kicked the woman’s seat with such force that it returned to its upright position. It was a reflex action, akin to trying to break a fall. I’m still aghast at my violence.
Fortunately for me, the incident happened in an era when cell phones weren’t ubiquitous and the woman in the seat in front wasn’t Wendi Williams, the American Eagle passenger who posted a video last week of a man punching her seat after she reclined it. Legions of tweeters derided the airborne Rocky Balboa and endorsed Williams’ characterization that he was a “jackhole.”
I’m not condoning the behavior of the punching passenger, but I understand what triggered it. Reclining one’s seat in coach is an act of aggression, a declaration to the person behind that their comfort is secondary to yours.
The punching passenger was in the very back row in a seat that wouldn’t recline. He had to contend with more than Williams’ usurpation of his legroom space; the bathroom was behind him, which meant when lines formed he’d likely have people hovering over him and crowding his side. Anyone having the misfortune of being assigned that God-awful seat was deserving of some compassion and extra consideration.
Williams and her defenders see things differently. They couldn’t care less what the punching passenger was feeling or experiencing. They argue that if airlines allow their seats to recline, then it’s perfectly appropriate to recline them. “I can, therefore I will.” This self-absorbed mindset has overtaken society and contributed to the decline in everyday civility and the polarization of America.
I’m speculating here, but my guess is that seat decliners are more likely to talk on their cell phones in coffee shops and movies, refuse to yield on the freeway so someone can make their exit, and comprise the majority of the membership at Equinox, the swanky fitness chain for the selfie set. I’d also bet that recliners overwhelmingly endorse the cancel culture, demanding the silencing or firing of anyone who displeases them. Indeed, Williams has demanded that an American Airlines flight attendant be fired because she claims the attendant sided with her seat tormentor. Williams also has met with an aviation attorney to discuss a possible lawsuit against American Airlines.
Let’s talk about how recklessly irresponsible it is for airlines to even allow seats to recline. Reclining seats are a legacy from the days when seats were considerably wider and there was ample room between them. Airplane seats continue to shrink while the general population has gotten considerably bigger. Allowing seats to fold back should have been eliminated when airlines did away with free checked bags and other perks once included with the price of an airline ticket.
Consumer groups argue that planes are packed so tightly they pose a serious safety risk. Compounding the issue is that airline cabin crews aren’t adequately trained to deal with mounting behavioral problems that result when people are confined to restrictive spaces, especially if they pass through the first and business class sections. Flying has become so unpleasant that even Comrade Bernie is known to have tripped on his egalitarian values while heading down the jetway and opted for first class rather than sitting with the proletariat.
I once asked a prominent behavioral psychologist why New Yorkers were more aggressive and confrontational. He said it was a function of the confined spaces they live in and that if Wyoming residents were forced to live under the same conditions, they’d quickly exhibit the same behavior.
This possibly explains why most of the bad behavior I experienced or witnessed in New York was mostly committed by people who weren’t born and raised in the city. The native New Yorkers I befriended were among the warmest and kindest people I’d ever met. They learned from birth to adapt and endure to the rigors of everyday New York life. Whereas I never rode New York subways comfortably, my close Bronx-born friend Bart reads and absorbs dense literary works during his 50-minute subway commutes between Manhattan and Queens.
Similarly, I can always identify frequent flyers when I walk through coach. They’re called “road warriors” because they’ve learned to expect and overcome the inconveniences and indignities of airline travel, including severe encroachments of their space. I’m forever in awe of the businessman I once witnessed sandwiched between two obese persons and three reclined seats in front; he seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he feverishly typed on his laptop and deftly juggled multiple spreadsheets.
James Lee, who has won awards for his airplane cabin designs, maintains “the question of the recline is like a zero-sum game. The gain of one person is the pain of the person behind.” Perhaps I’ve not yet experienced one of Lee’s cabin designs but on all the planes I’ve ever flown the gain/pain ratio is not proportionately related.
Reclining a seat provides a wee modicum of extra comfort for the recliner, but dramatic additional discomfort for the person behind. As well, sitting in a reclined airplane seat is bad for one’s back as it causes the person to slouch. The best way to relieve the pain from extensively sitting ramrod straight is to get up and walk around, an activity the airlines discourage.
Paula Froelich, an author and former gossip reporter, provides some insight about the FU prism through which unabashed seat recliners look at the world. “I don’t care if (the person punching Williams’ seat) was in the last seat of the plane and his own seat didn’t recline,” she said. “In this day and age, you can check in early, pick your seat or pay a little more for extra leg room. It’s just poor planning on his part.”
Froelich obviously has lived a charmed travel life. Reserving an extra legroom seat does not guarantee you will ultimately land one or prevent you from sitting in the last row of an airplane. Twice in the past 12 months I’ve been reassigned to regular middle coach seats after reserving extra legroom aisle seats. Here’s how Delta handled my situation and my experience with North America’s most pathetic airline.
Most troubling of all is the mindset of people like Christy@PackYrPixieDust who maintain that because seats are enabled to recline, that’s reason enough to do it. Inherent in this argument is that as a society we should look to corporations to determine what constitutes civil behavior rather than expect companies to adopt policies and practices that reflect societal values and mores.
If the airlines had a modicum of responsibility, they would dispense with seat belt demonstrations and introduce breathing and visualization exercises and offer soothing nature videos and Nada Yoga music. They’d also train cabin attendants how to diffuse situations when people snap because they can’t bear the close confines. Sardine seating is responsible for the dramatic rise in air rage.
For those who agree that seat recliners are selfish, I urge you to join my campaign to celebrate the considerate. Whenever I’m fortunate to sit behind someone who chose not to recline, I approach them afterwards and loudly thank them for their thoughtfulness and having allowed me to better enjoy the flight. The gesture is always appreciated because people who don’t recline their seats care about others, not just themselves.