Injury To Insult

by Chas Danner

As the tallest staffer (6’4″) here at the Dish, feels like I should be the one to steer us into the airline legroom debate that’s flared up this week. For the uninitiated, on Monday a Newark-to-Denver flight was diverted after a scuffle broke out between two passengers when one used a $21.95 device called a Knee Defender to prevent the other’s seat from reclining. In short, a laptop’s airspace was temporarily defended, a little plastic cup of water was thrown, and an airplane full of helpless bystanders was annoyed when the flight had to land to eject the combatants. Then another recline-related fracas happened yesterday with a similar result. Anyway, because the Internet exists and we lucky few get paid to put things on it, a civility war has broken out between pro and anti-recline advocates. In one corner were tall people like Bill Saporito:

I don’t travel with a Knee Defender, but I do travel with knees. Just being an airline passengers makes everyone cranky to begin with. Being 6 ft. 2 in. and long of leg, I’m in a near rage by the time I wedge myself into a coach seat. And now you want to jam your chair back into my knees for four hours? Go fly a kite. It’s an airline seat, not a lounge chair. You want comfort, buy a business class seat. What’s surprising is that there haven’t been more fights over Knee Defender. Or perhaps these incidents haven’t been reported. I’ve gotten into it a few times with people in front of me who insist that the space over my knees is theirs, as if they have some kind of air rights. And I’m sure I will again.

In the other corner, the air-libertarians going on about the “social contract”:

Buying a Knee Defender is cheating. It is like insider trading, but worse, because not everyone expects to get rich. Everyone does expect to recline.

Christopher Ingraham notes that most Americans probably agree with that. Here’s Barro examining an economic angle:

When you buy an airline ticket, one of the things you’re buying is the right to use your seat’s reclining function. If this passenger so badly wanted the passenger in front of him not to recline, he should have paid her to give up that right. I wrote an article to that effect in 2011, noting that airline seats are an excellent case study for the Coase Theorem. This is an economic theory holding that it doesn’t matter very much who is initially given a property right; so long as you clearly define it and transaction costs are low, people will trade the right so that it ends up in the hands of whoever values it most. That is, I own the right to recline, and if my reclining bothers you, you can pay me to stop. We could (but don’t) have an alternative system in which the passenger sitting behind me owns the reclining rights. In that circumstance, if I really care about being allowed to recline, I could pay him to let me.

Rejecting that argument, Damon Darlin stands up for knee defense:

The problem seems akin to people walking on a 48-inch city sidewalk with those ridiculous 54-inch-wide golf umbrellas. Or is a better analogy the range wars of the American West in which cattlemen try to stop the farmers until Shane fights back with his ivory-handled Colt revolver? Using a Knee Defender may seem uncivil, but it is not: It just evens the playing field. Instead of having the guy in front of you slam the seat back and wait for $50, as Mr. Barro suggests, with a defender you can now negotiate.

“It gives you the chance to be human beings,” says Ira Goldman, the inventor of the Knee Defender, who has seen traffic to his online store rise 500 times above average since an altercation last weekend on a United flight involving his device. “Do you want the conversation to start before the laptop screen is cracked or after it is cracked?” he asks. “Like Max Bialystok and Leo Bloom in “The Producers,’ the airlines sell 200 percent of that space.”

The airlines have also failed to establish property rights for armrests, but there is a generally understood code for that: The person in the aisle has room to stretch, the person in the window seat has the fuselage to lean against, and the person in the middle has nothing, so he or she gets the armrests.

And of course human beings tend to peacefully navigate these small disputes with alarming regularity, from fitting our cars into a Jersey-bound tunnel to, you know, not getting your plane diverted for any reason, ever. But Dan Kois points out the real ridiculousness of economy airline seats:

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.

Like Kois, I too have a “shall not pass” policy when it comes to the chain reaction of reclining-seats. I know what it’s like to get up at the end of a flight and have my knees buckle underneath me because they’ve been cut off from my circulatory system by a seat-back for six hours. So I refuse to recline my seat if there is ever a person (of any height) behind me. I try to break the chain. And I also fetch top-shelf cans for elderly women at the grocery store, and try to stand relatively still at rock concerts so the people behind me can expect a consistent viewing angle. Tall people aren’t all ogres, nor do we naturally excel at basketball, nor do we like having to special order our size-15 shoes, nor enjoy suffering mild concussions by accidentally walking into door frames. But back to the legroom, Kois has another good point to make about airline seats:

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?

Reclining seats have been with us as long as airlines began making human passengers a priority. In the 1920s and 1930s, people were an afterthought; planes were meant to carry airmail and cargo, and any humans who wanted to come along were welcome to pay an astronomical fare and sit in wicker chairs.  … In the beginning, reclining seats—along with footrests and in-seat ashtrays—were designed as part of airlines’ commitment to deluxe accommodations, as captains of industry in three-piece suits sipped martinis on board, stretching their legs one way and tilting their seats the other.

The seats persisted, even as airlines moved to the tiered service model we know now, which required packing more and more customers into economy in order to keep RPK (revenue per kilometer) high. “They didn’t want to give up the idea of luxury altogether,” Hill notes. But these days, flying is simply an ordeal to be survived. In the era of cheap tickets and passengers crammed onto flights like sardines, reclining seats make no sense.

That I totally agree with. We’re not talking about La-Z-Boys here, the additional comfort of a reclined economy seat is minuscule – more of a placebo at this point – and faux courtesies like this are especially aggravating when you consider the worsening state of economy airline travel. The prices go up. The legroom goes down. That free extra bag isn’t free anymore, and sometimes neither is the first one (and you better pre-weigh both bags at home). Used to be that tall folk like me could do some extra legwork to secure an exit or bulkhead row, but then the airlines figured that out so on came the extra fees for those seats, or the economy-plus sections that inched you $50-100 closer to the first class curtain.

On that note, I’m no Marxist, but one thing I have always hated about flying is how it feels like the Victorian class system’s last stand, one of the only situations where your place in society is explicitly and unapologetically stratified by how much money you don’t have (and yes, of course I realize this is a quintessentially First World argument, and that many people can’t afford to fly at all, etc). But seriously, for most people, first and business class are offensively more-expensive, designed to cater only to the very rich and those privileged enough to be traveling at some corporation’s expense. Save the Jetblues and Southwests of the world, there’s no recourse to this scrunched-in relegation. In-seat TVs are about the only thing in my lifetime that’s made flying coach more tolerable (streaming romantic comedies, the real opiate of the masses).

Unfortunately, I think we’re likely stuck with reclining seats and, for some of us, squished knees. After all, airlines couldn’t possibly get away with subtracting anything else from economy, could they?

[S]ome airlines, including Allegiant and Spirit, have installed non-reclining seats. Result: no more altercations (plus they could squeeze in some more seats on the planes). Other airlines, including Delta and American, are installing articulating seat pans on some of their planes in which the seat moves forward as it tilts back, so you essentially are taking away legroom from yourself instead of the guy behind you.

Progress. At least until the rise of the sardines.

By the way, Mark Orwoll, whose piece I just excerpted, also contributes this helpful etiquette list in order to avoid getting an air marshall involved in your seating arrangements:

  1. Never recline during meal service. When the rolling food trays come out, seats go upright.
  2. Don’t recline fully unless it’s a night flight and people are sleeping.
  3. Don’t recline suddenly and forcefully. You might spill your rear neighbor’s Bloody Mary or damage her Macbook Pro (it almost happened to me!).

I’ll add a #4: Before you recline, see if there’s an uncomfortable tall person behind you, and if so, have mercy – they might help you get your bags down when the plane lands.