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Slate published an article called the Recline and Fall of Western Civilization in its irregular A Fine Whine column where writers complain about things as varied as Thanksgiving, lunch breaks, and royal weddings.

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.

The writer cites examples of foul language and heated exchanges caused by seat-reclining incidents.

Once, on a flight from Chicago to Honolulu, a sweet old Hawaiian lady and her husband sat in front of me, and both reclined their seats at the very beginning of the eight-hour trip. “Excuse me,” I said. “That’s very uncomfortable. Is there any chance you could put your seat back up, at least partway?”

“No!” she snapped. “We paid for these goddamn seats, and we’ll recline them if we want to.” So then everyone was angry: I was angry because I had no room, and she was angry because I passive-aggressively kicked her seat once every 15 minutes—often enough to be annoying, but not often enough to definitely be on purpose.

(I find what she said to be unnecessarily rude. A simple, “Sorry, no” would have sufficed. And then what he did is horrible. Something about two wrongs…)

The writer links to a product–Knee Defender–that I hadn’t heard of which is designed to stop the seat in front from reclining.

And he finally concludes that the problem lies not with the passengers, but with the airlines who installed reclining seats. (And Miss Manners agrees.)

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?

Here’s why I completely disagree with his analysis. It all rests on the following assumption:

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.

I think he’s dead wrong. Maybe it’s just my 6’4″ frame, but I am far more comfortable in economy when the person in front me and I both recline than when neither of us reclines.

And there are airlines that install seats that don’t recline. I think neither Ryan Air nor easyJet seats recline. I could be mistaken, but I know that certain low-cost carriers in Europe have non-reclining seats.

Are those airlines paragons of comfort? Most people would say that those airlines represent the exact opposite–the worst of modern flying. (Incidentally that is not a view I hold. I love flying budget carriers on short hops.)

I agree that there are some people who would prefer that no seats reclined to the current situation, but I don’t think it’s a majority opinion. Imagine if Southwest fitted the left side of its 737s with reclining seats and the right side without them. Which would fill up first? I think the left side.

He does talk about an interesting possible development in seats that may be coming:

Some European airlines have begun installing seats that are slightly tilted in their natural resting state, which, anecdotally at least, helps convince passengers they don’t need to tilt further.

If these seats stop people from wanting to recline, that may solve the problem. Until then, what’s the etiquette?

Seat Reclining Etiquette in Coach

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to fully recline my seat in economy throughout the trip. I will put it back upright if I stand up to go to the bathroom, though I imagine this is small comfort since I will be reclining again when I sit back down.

I think it’s inappropriate to ask someone not to recline. To me, it’s unwarranted social pressure.

I think it’s horrible to kick someone’s seat repeatedly as punishment for reclining.

I don’t claim these are majority opinions or that they are necessarily right except the last part about kicking.

What do you think? Do you have different rules based on the length of a flight? Would you stop reclining if someone asked you to?

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