A Tall Man's Plea: Stop Reclining Your Seat On Planes
With Halloween in the rearview mirror, it’s about to enter the Holidays Proper, and with it, a time of relentless, continuous travel for many people. As if the dark days and seasonal depression weren’t enough, November and December tend to require you to further decimate your circadian rhythms by hopping time zones, and give up the bed you’ve so lovingly tuned for your own personal sleep preferences for a series of dusty pull-outs or stiff hotel bulk-buys. It also means that you are about to become deeply familiar with the scent and swamp-like texture of a packaged breakfast sandwich from the damp floor of a heating tray. All washed down with bad coffee that’s either too hot or too cold, but never just right, like it was procured from a fairy-tale home housing only 2 childless bears. All together, it’s the kind of environment a reality show producer would manufacture in order to create tension between family members, and it’s no wonder so many Thanksgivings end up with someone “needing to go for a walk.”
Much of this is par for the course. But there is one final indignity that we could all erase, if we simply band together. I’m talking about the sudden, semi-cushioned impact of the plane seat back in front of you into both of your knees approximately 10,000 feet after takeoff. You’ve finally settled into your spot, you’ve watched some sort of inane video on safety procedures that a marketing department attempted to make “fun”, fully guaranteeing that no one will ever pay attention to it. You’re about to put on the sort of dead-center 50% on Rotten Tomatoes movie that feels so right for a plane ride. You hear a slight click and a quick creak and within a second, the menisci of both kneecaps are compressed into painful little pancakes. The self-satisfied sigh of the person seated ahead salts the wound just that much more.
I’ll admit that as a taller than average man, living at the size of an NFL tight end with none of the athleticism, strength, or money to show for it, I am more sensitive to this. On the best of days, I fit in an airplane seat like a personal pizza fits in a jean pocket. The only place I look like I’m traveling to is back to the lab to get the bolts in my neck replaced. I realize there’s not a lot of tears shed for tall men, shin splints and short life expectancy aside, but even for an average-sized person, there’s not much space to spare.
None of this is helped by the fact that airlines have been squeezing every possible inch out of individual seats in order to increase capacity, while also stealing centimeters to create the class warfare disguised as seating option that they call Economy Plus Ultra, et al. Like a frog boiled in slowly heating water, suddenly we’re all flying cross country packed into absolutely minimal meatspace, ten dozen cubes of anguish and unnatural spine curvature attempting to watch Doctor Strange with our head sideways.
I realize there will be backlash, and I am ready for it. I know the most common refrain: “I paid for a seat that reclines, if you don’t like it, it’s your problem.” I understand this! I really do! Because that’s exactly what Big Airplane WANTS us saying. They want us fighting over 10 degrees of lean, sparring over the spatial scraps that they’ve left us with. They want us saying “I can’t believe this person is taking away my space” instead of “Hey, shouldn’t these seats be designed with the size of a human in mind instead of a tiny woodland elf?”
Plus, the person in front of you is most likely going to recline their seat into you. Think of the annoyance you feel when you see that headrest descend, all but crushing your tiny Coca-Cola can, sending your plastic cup filled with ice that somehow tastes bad rattling towards your lap. It’s a natural reaction to take that fury and pass it along, to send the wave of space invasion rocketing backwards towards the back of the plane, until it finally crushes the last row between bad upholstery and an airplane bathroom filled with digested McGriddle remains. The fat cats are up in first class, sitting in small airborne apartments, sipping orange juice and champagne, buying the overpriced Wi-Fi in order to finalize their company’s layoffs. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about first class except by stalwartly crop-dusting them every time we board and trying to shit in their fancy bathroom when the flight attendant isn’t watching. Meanwhile, all of coach is embroiled in a seat-based Stanford Prison Experiment that will only end in bruised knees and spilled pretzels.
Now, I’m also not trying to say the only acceptable level of reclination is the default, upright position. No doubt also due to attempts to save space, that now basically locks you into the posture of an ambulance spineboard. The solution here, the compromise that brings us all the greatest pleasure, is the partial recline. Sure, pop a click or two to give yourself a little breathing room. But we don’t all need to be slamming our seat back repeatedly like we’re trying to straighten steel rebar. The partial recline is the olive branch of aerial travel. A partial recline says to the person behind you, “we’re all in this together.” A perfect, balanced, combination of comfort for two parties, forming a both metaphorical and visual yin and yang.
This is a long war, and one I don’t expect to win, but one I will be proud to go down fighting. Scientists have long known about the phenomenon of “phantom traffic jams”. These are caused by drivers’ tendency for the binary of either stop or go over slow, continuous movement, creating seemingly standstill traffic out of nowhere. Our devotion to the full recline echoes this very same problem. And in the same seemingly contradictory way that everyone going a little slower would make us get everywhere faster, everyone making themselves a little less comfortable would make all of our travel more pleasant.