You can also listen to Dan Kois read this piece.
The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.
Why? She’s a recliner.
For the five minutes after takeoff, every passenger on an airliner exists in a state of nature. Everyone is equally as uncomfortable as everyone else—well, at least everyone who doesn’t have the advantage of first class seating or the disadvantage of being over 6 feet tall. The passengers are blank slates, subjects of an experiment in morality which begins the moment the seat-belt light turns off.
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.)
What options do we, the reclined-upon, have? We can purchase the Knee Defender, a product which snaps onto the tray table and prevents the passenger seated in front of us from reclining their seat. But that seems fraught with potential awkward complications. What if the person ahead of you protests? What if the flight attendant gets angry? (The website for Knee Defenders even acknowledges these difficulties with a whole page titled “Etiquette on Airplanes”—and offers printable “courtesy cards” to hand to the person in front of you.)
Lacking a Knee Defender, you can politely ask the person in front of you not to recline. But then the person in front of you is filled with resentment, because he feels you have forced him to give up his comfort in favor of yours. (Plus, the person in front of him may have reclined her seat.)
And it might not even work. Once, on a flight from Chicago to Honolulu, a sweet old Hawaiian lady and her husband sat in front of me, and both reclined their seats at the very beginning of the eight-hour trip. “Excuse me,” I said. “That’s very uncomfortable. Is there any chance you could put your seat back up, at least partway?”