Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

02.20.13

Should People Stop Reclining Their Seats?

Close seat pitches make it hard to enjoy your trip when the guy in front of you leans back.

Dan Kois wants airlines to stop allowing people to recline their seats:  

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.

Or else there are those, like me, who refuse to be so rude as to inconvenience the passengers behind us. Here I sit, fuming, all the way from IAD to LAX, the deceptively nice-seeming schoolteacher’s seat back so close to my chin that to watch TV I must nearly cross my eyes. To type on this laptop while still fully opening the screen requires me to jam the laptop’s edge into my stomach.

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.)

I infer from this that Dan Kois is not afflicted with lower back trouble.  I would not be better off if no one reclined; rather, I would be hobbling off the plane in agony, looking forward to a day or so of recuperating in the hotel room. Sitting bolt upright for a long flight can leave me near-crippled for days, as I once found out through an unwise seat selection.  

Which is presumably why the airlines have chosen to keep the reclining chairs.  A large proportion of the US population has lower back trouble, and while you might find a seat reclining into your space inconvenient, the people who'd have to spend three vacation days in the hotel room care a whole lot more than you do.  

Not that I'm unsympathetic to the plight of those who sit behind me.  I am also afflicted with a 35-inch inseam, which means that the seat in front of me is frequently reclining straight into my knees.  (It is an unfortunate fact that unusual height and back trouble tend to go together like chocolate and peanut butter, so that tall people are both the primary victims and the primary victimizers in the recliner wars)*.  

The real trouble, of course, is seat pitch, the distance between your seat and the one in front of you. Since deregulation, airlines have lowered prices by jamming as many seats as possible into each plane.  Moreover, the planes now run very full.  Which means that every seat contains someone who is reclining straight into the lap of their backstairs neighbor.  

Of course, behind that trouble is a troubling fact: we don't want to pay for wider seat pitch.  Multiple airlines--most notably American Airlines in 2000--have tried to adopt a more-legroom, premium price strategy, but without much success.  People mostly shop on price.  And then write articles arguing that other people should sit bolt upright for hours on end in order to make this choice bearable.  

Luckily, there is another option available for people like me and Dan Kois: extra legroom seats.  Most of the major airlines are now charging a modest price for 3-6 inches of extra seat pitch on many flights, and whenever it's available, I pay it.  It seems a much cheaper cost than a day of pain.


Later in the piece, Kois, discussing devices to prevent people from reclining, asks "What if the person in front of you protests?" This has actually happened to me, on a Virgin transatlantic flight, except that the barrier to reclining was not a device known as a "Knee Defender", but my actual knees.  The best part was when the stewardess actually tried to reason with me, as if I could somehow make myself shorter.  Eventually, she moved the guy in front of me to business class, and we both slept in peace.