A Few Words About Reclining Airline Seats

Face it, people: You've made it clear you want a low price more than you want comfort, so this airline has provided it.


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Good morning. This is your captain. We'll be cruising today at an altitude of 30,000 feet, and we expect to arrive at our destination on time. Then we'll spend 45 minutes on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open up, because apparently, the airport folks had no idea we were coming.

Our flight crew will be coming through the cabin shortly to offer you a choice of lukewarm beverages along with a tiny chemical-infused snack that wouldn't sustain a gerbil through a cold night. You're welcome to take a nap, if you can sleep through me coming on the intercom to inform you of things you couldn't care less about.

And if there's anything we can do to make your flight more pleasant, please let us know so we can figure out if there's a way to charge you for it.

But I want to make a special announcement today. My last flight got diverted because a couple of knuckleheads started screaming and throwing things at each other. Turns out one of them wanted to recline a seat and the other took offense. I really hate detours. So let me tell you how it's going to be.

You all bought a ticket for a seat that reclines, which means if you want to recline, you're entitled to do it. I'm not saying you should. Just because you're free to spend the entire flight sobbing to your seatmates about your breakup or berating them with your opinion of Barack Obama doesn't mean it's a considerate thing to do. Just because you are allowed to scratch and belch en route doesn't mean your mother would approve.

But if we wanted to prevent our passengers from reclining, we would install seats that don't recline. So if the person in front of you leans back, you have several options. You can politely ask if he or she would mind not reclining, or at least not reclining quite so far. You can buy him or her a drink as an incentive.

You can pull out a twenty-dollar bill and pay an old-fashioned cash bribe. Heck, I don't care if you offer sexual favors, as long as they don't happen on board. If nothing else works, you can weep and beg.

What you can't do is use a "Knee Defender" to block the seat from reclining. You can't push against the seat until the other person returns the seat to its upright position. You can't scream and swear and throw things. If you do, we'll land at the nearest airport and let the cops put you in a seat you'll find even less comfy.

If our policy offends you, let me make some suggestions. Next time, buy a seat that has extra legroom. Or upgrade to first class. Or patronize one of the airlines whose seats don't budge.

Or just forget flying. I hear Amtrak cars have more room than airline cabins. You could get in your car and drive. You could stay home.

But if being stuck with a reclining seat in your face bothers you so much, let me bring out the world's smallest violin to play a microscopic sad song. Your ancestors probably came across the ocean in steerage, crammed into dim spaces with smelly strangers for weeks at a time, fighting off rats and scurvy.

Or they may have come in slave ships against their will, where they had a truly excellent chance of dying. They may have crossed the continent in a bone-jarring covered wagon eating buffalo jerky three meals a day.

And you? You have to endure modestly cramped quarters for a few hours to be transported vast distances they would have needed weeks or months to cover. Boo friggin' hoo.

Face it, people: You've made it clear you want a low price more than you want comfort, so this airline has provided it, often losing money in the process. That's why we have to charge for bags and meals that used to cost you nothing. Factor in inflation, and you pay a whole lot less than passengers did back in 1979.

If you were willing to pony up for more space, my employer would be happy to install a La-Z-Boy for every traveler. But you're cheap. You squeeze every nickel until Thomas Jefferson screams. And then you wonder why we pack you in so tight.

So be grateful for the bargain fare. And notice: It's not spelled F-A-I-R.

NEXT: Brickbat: Wait, Isn't Oscar Canadian?

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    1. Dammit, I thought I was going to be first!

    2. To quote Seinfeld, “Carlin did it first”.

  1. If any pilot tried this, some asshole would sue on some bogus grounds or another.

  2. Most of the delays on the tarmac are cuased by government mismanagement of the air traffic control or the airport itself, but it’s always up tot eh airlines to deal with the resulting problems.

  3. That’s a very prolix way to say “harden the fuck up”

  4. Yeah, I dunno. It’s all about expectations and what’s possible. I have to agree that – bottom line – the seats have recliners. I don’t like it when the person in front of me reclines, but I don’t bitch because….they’re allowed to recline. “Else we’d have not put in reclining seats.” Yes, we like to make up our own social “rules” about “they should ask, or know that I’m 6’6” and this will be uncomfortable”…whatever. This is part of the reason I haven’t flown in years – it’s way more uncomfortable in the plane than in the 80’s when I started flying for bidness – and the entire TSA/airport out-of-plane experience is just horrid. So I skip it if at all possible.

    To Louis CK’s point Atanarjuat posted, yes, I remind myself when my internet craps out about how – when I started – we were using dial-up connections that invariably crapped out two hours in to a four hour transmission of data from Detroit to Pittsburgh that I can now literally do in a couple seconds. And I actually agree 40 mins on the runway ain’t so bad.

    So, overall – I actually agree with Chapman for the most part – for once. Don’t get the flight diverted by arguing about someone putting their seat back, and don’t you dare use the “Knee Defender”. With that said, flying STILL sucks, I’ll avoid it if at all possible, and fuck the TSA.

    1. The seats (usually) have recline functions. You’re allowed to recline. At the same time, if you recline completely into the person behind you, you’re kind of a dick (yes, I know, some people have back problems and can’t sit up straight for more than an hour or whatever).

      All of these problems could be resolved if recliners would be a bit more considerate of the person behind them and reclinees would try to engage the recliner civilly, rather than flipping out.

      For once, Chapman makes a number of decent points.

      1. We’re in utter agreement!

      2. All this could be solved if domestic airlines would get less shitty planes. This never seems to be an issue on international flights. I usually figure everyone reclines and everyone gains and loses the same amount of space.

  5. I think I read somewhere that, after adjusting for inflation, the average airline ticket from the “golden age” of comfortable flying costs about as much as first class today.

    1. And then you have the pepole who are pissed that the common people can fly wherever they want, such as to travel destinations that only the right people could afford a generation ago.

  6. You’ve made it clear you want a low price more than you want comfort…

    It’s been a long time since I got either on a flight.

  7. Because of A: the low odds of emergency requiring that I assist, B: my height and C: the length of my femur, I tend to go for those exit row seats where there isn’t a chair in front of you. I once wranged the equivalent without a door because the galley was in front of me. I’ve never had problems with the person in front of me reclining.

    Also my sad inability to sleep while in a moving vehicle means I don’t recline the seat.

    1. I do the same on the rare occasions I fly anywhere. It helps a little, but its still incredibly uncomfortable. They have yet to build a plane my size.

      1. I have you tried the G6?
        /has orphan polish monocle

  8. Obviously the solution is to disable the reclining.

    People who’ve ODed on flying nonsense are already not flying.

  9. Excellent piece, Chapman. You are 100% correct.

  10. Excellent piece, Chapman. You are 100% correct.

    That definitely goes in the “Words I never thought I’d hear” file.

  11. You all bought a ticket for a seat that reclines

    Could you point out anywhere on the ticket or any sort of purchasing agreement where seat reclining is mentioned as a condition of sale? I could just as easily argue that I bought a ticket for a seat with a tray table, and thus am entitled to not have someone’s seat back rendering it unusable.

    1. Pretty much every major airline has reclining seats. You know your seat will recline and you know that the seat in front of you will recline. You can’t say you didn’t know what you were buying. And since when does a reclined seat render a tray table inoperable? The tray tables are independent, so they don’t tilt with the seat. Sure you have less space above the tray table, but that’s why the cups are so small. Either way, you still can’t claim you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. If you don’t want the person in front of you to recline then either buy first/business class or get the front row.

      1. Most planes have overhead storage bins too. Yet I’ve been on flights where the overhead bins were filled before I was seated and I had to check my carryon. By Chapman’s logic, I was defrauded by the airline because my “expectation” that I would have overhead storage entitles me to it.

        Of course it does not; nothing the agreement to purchase the ticket actually said I would have overhead storage. Likewise nothing says you will have a reclining seat, so whether you “expect” to be able to recline or not, nothing in your purchase entitles you to be able to do so.

        1. The airlines allow people to recline their seats. Until they tell you not to, you are entitled to do so.

          I’m still a bit puzzled about this. I don’t think I have ever been on a flight where pretty much everyone didn’t have their seats reclined whenever possible. Though, as I said, I have not flown domestically very much, which is shittier in every way.

      2. No one knows that their seat will recline. If they think that then they are ill-informed. Every aircraft has some seats that don’t recline. So Chapman’s argument along these lines is faulty. Yes, there is an expectation of reclining, and yes, if you happen to get a seat that has that feature than you should be expect to be able to recline it. But, we also have an expectation that we will be able to open up the tray table so it is horizontal (so you don’t have to hold the food tray to prevent it from sliding off). But the latter expectation is not met for some of us when the seat in front is reclined. So someone can’t get their expectations met. Why is it automatically the reclining person that should get his way? This is a tough issue. Perhaps the only way to solve it is to eliminate the ability to recline seats.

  12. Just take out the seats already and build shelving units. Stack ’em in there like cordwood.

    1. Sit them like a C-130, where you are so close, you interleave legs.

      1. Don’t ask, don’t tell, yo.

      2. And when someone heaves, everyone heaves!

        *still has memories of flying half way around the world in a C-130*

    2. This.

      And charge $25.00 for “Depends”.

    3. I would totally go for a deal where they heavily sedate you and put you in a box for the flight.

  13. Smack Daddy is not going to like that.

  14. Could you point out anywhere on the ticket or any sort of purchasing agreement where seat reclining is mentioned as a condition of sale?

    Can you point out the legal justification for letting stewardesses pretend to be air marshals?

    1. Don’t most ticket sales require you to sign something saying you will follow crewmember instructions?

  15. What? Not a word about the Jews?

    1. “And now, a word about the JOOZ…!”

  16. my co-worker’s aunt makes $62 every hour on the internet . She has been without work for nine months but last month her check was $19497 just working on the internet for a few hours. see it here……..


  17. Another travel tip: Don’t keep your knees at 90 degrees during the whole flight. Slink down a little and extend them straight out under the seat in front of you. Oh, you’ve already stowed a bag under there? Life is full of choices.

  18. Why have seats all? Caveat emptor, baby. Just crush them in like Arbeit Macht Fly.

    1. I am a terrible person for laughing at this, but I did.

  19. It’ll be interesting when one of the airlines is taken to court over a passenger developing a blood clot or other physical harm from the fact that the seats have now been moved too damn close.

    I’m pretty sure that jury would award the passenger, or hell the passenger’s family (blood clots can prove fatal), eleventy million dollars.

    I mean sure reclining is a feature, but lately they’ve moved the seats so damn close to each other that everyone over six feet tall has a femur that is physically longer than the distance from the back of their seat to the back of the previous row. It’s this physical impossibility that is leading to the seat wars, not some general new discontent coming from passengers. The seat configuration of Delta’s MD90 planes makes them literally the most uncomfortable vehicle I’ve ever ridden on.

    1. This.

      Although I’ve found that most people un-recline their seat when I say “Ow!” as they do so, and then stand up and loom over them. “Oh, don’t mind me. I just can’t sit any more, so, I’ll be standing here for the flight.”

      1. “Whatcha readin?”

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