The Shifting Ethics of the Reclining Seat

I’ve always liked the Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine, to which people write with ethical dilemmas. My favorite was about reclining airliner seats.

Travelers face many questions of conscience but this is one of the more immediate and personal. Should you recline your seat into the space of the person behind you? What if the person in front of you does it to you? (As with most dilemmas involving air travel, it’s magnified in coach.)

This all came to mind because of a recent survey that suggested 91 percent of people think airline seats should not recline on short-haul flights and that 43 percent think that reclining should be permitted only during set times on long-haul flights. The publicity about this survey offered little detail on its methodology, other than to say “Skyscanner polled over 1,000 travellers via OnePoll,” so I have some doubts about the precision of the results.

But there’s no question that seat reclining causes conflict. Including the one described in the Ethicist column. A woman wrote that she reclined her coach seat after the passenger in front of her reclined his seat. The passenger behind her, a tall man, objected and called in a flight attendant, who told the woman to put her seat back in an upright position. But the flight attendant didn’t tell the passenger in front of the woman to change his seat position. And so the woman was left with less space than the passengers in front of and behind her, a situation that she tolerated unhappily for the rest of the flight.

Something similar happened to me. I never recline my seat until reclined upon. But one time, the seat wouldn’t move when I tried to recline it. I heard a sort of muffled complaint that suggested the passenger behind me was pushing back on my seat. But maybe the seat was broken. Or he was using one of those Knee Defender devices. (I link but I disapprove. Don’t buy those things, please.)

In any event, the seat wouldn’t budge. It was a fairly short flight and I decided to just let it go. A confrontation with a big man over leg room didn’t seem worth it. But I was annoyed.

In the case taken up by the Ethicist, the columnist concluded that the flight attendant was wrong to tell the woman to put her seat upright without making the passenger in front of her do the same. The result was that the woman got less space than she paid for, and that’s not fair.

That seems right to me, even though I do take pity on tall people in those situations. I once gave up a seat on a bus in Costa Rica to a passenger who was so tall that when he stood in the aisle he had to look down at this feet with his neck pressed to the roof. It was a long trip but it was easier for me to stand than to watch that from my seat. Still, nobody should be able to demand that I give up the space I paid for. (See my diatribe on refusing to switch airline seats.) It’s a matter between me and my conscience.

And let’s face it. It’s not as if tall people share the advantages of their height, which are considerable in our culture, with smaller people. (Hey stranger, studies show that taller people get paid more, so I’ll share my salary with you. And then I’ll hunch over so you can see the ballgame better.)

But I’m only 5 foot 8 or so, and I know things looks different from, say, 6 foot 5. I have a friend that tall, All I can advise him to do is present himself in all his towering immensity at the gate and beg for mercy — by which I mean an exit row being vacated by somebody who got upgraded to first.

And as for whether seats should recline, I polled myself and found that I hate it when people recline their seats in front of me and I wish they wouldn’t do it. And I suppose if they couldn’t, they wouldn’t, so I’d rather just do away with reclining seats, at least in coach.

But the fact that Spirit Airlines and Ryanair are the only carriers I know of with non-reclining seats (Spirit calls them “pre-reclined”) gives me pause.  They do it, I suspect, because their torturous seat pitches (30 inches on Ryanair and a crushing 28 inches on Spirit) might turn reclining a seat into a fatal assault. Besides, it’s hard to imagine that anything those airlines do could be a good idea.

If the major carriers ever follow suit with non-reclining seats, they’ll probably reduce the leg room at the same time. And charge a “pre-reclining” fee. Or maybe unlock the reclining function only when you swipe a credit card. (Please, Spirit — I’m kidding.)

So let’s just let bad enough alone. In an industry where change is almost always for the worse, we should cling desperately to the status quo for as long as possible. So go ahead, recline on me. I’ll just pass the misery along.

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