I saw Ann Althouse’s post about a seat reclining dust-up on American Airlines, and immediately decided that the issue wasn’t worth posting about, since in my view, the ethical choice is clear. Then the issue exploded all over cable news and the web, so here I am. It would be so much easier if more people read Ethics Alarms.
She attached the video. Many of Ann’s commenters opined that the woman was a “jackhole” herself (for some reason I’ve never liked that term) for videotaping him and sending his face hither and yon rather than having a civilized discussion with him. How the flight attendant could justify siding with a jerk who was punching a seat, I cannot fathom. Now “Wendi” says she is considering suing American.
I addressed this issue in 2014, in the context of a product called “The Knee Defender,” which a jackhole could install to prevent the seat in front of you on a plane from reclining. I was pretty ticked off about it, too. In fact, I got on a roll:
What gives anyone in the seat behind me the right to appropriate space in the plane I have paid for? I have paid for it, you know: the space that my seat can recline into is within my control, my dominion. If I choose not to avail myself of it, then the person behind me is certainly free to make use of it—until I change my mind. There is no other legitimate, logical or fair interpretation of the rights and privileges involved. Using the Knee Defender, a sinister device designed to unilaterally claim my space, is taking what is mine by force. There’s no other side to the issue.
Oh, the obnoxious, smug marketing for the thing claims otherwise:
“It helps you defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be “back there”…
First of all, you can’t defend space you have no right to, and never owned in the first place. And don’t insult me: I have a face, and no, I really don’t care how long your legs are. Mine are pretty long too, You have to be awfully tall not to be able to extend your legs under my seat. Oh—you have baggage under there, because you stowed some obscenely large roller-board in the over-head bins? Tough! I check my large luggage so I can keep the area clear under the seat in front of me, so I can stretch out my legs, so I don’t feel I have to whine about the seat in front of me reclining, and use vigilante devices invented by a trouble-maker to stop me from doing what the airlines say I purchased the privilege of doing, do he can pick up a lousy $29.95. You can check your luggage too, you know. You can also seat yourself behind the seats that don’t recline. But no, rather than make the effort to deal with your physical limitations by planning ahead, you think it’s acceptable to solve your problem by waging war against the unlucky traveler who happens to get the seat in front of you.
Awwww, you’re really tall? Poor baby! Fly first class. Don’t fly at all. Saw off your legs. I don’t really care: you have no right to demand that I solve your problem. Looking down on everyone is not always a problem now, is it? You get to see over my head if you’re watching a movie. You can reach the top shelves I can’t. You can eat more than me without looking like Orson Welles. You are probably good at volleyball and basketball. You’re damn impressive when you walk into a meeting, and I bet you didn’t get your share of bullying growing up. So you are happy to enjoy those random but substantial benefits of your superior height, but want to pass off the disadvantage to someone else. The technical term for acting like this is “being a spoiled brat.”
You want to know a secret? If you are really tall, if you don’t have something stuffed under my seat blocking your feet because you are too cheap to check your ridiculously large luggage, and if you ask really nicely, I won’t recline my seat, even though I won’t stop the person in front of me from reclining his seat, since he has a right to that space, just like I have a right to the space I gave up to you. Do you know why I’ll do that for you? Because that’s the way I am: ethical….unlike you.
The entitled rationalizations being vomited up to justify this flat out appropriation of my autonomy are really beyond belief. [Knee Defender inventor] Goldman sites polls indicating that “a majority say seats shouldn’t recline at all if anyone’s behind you.” I bet I can find a poll showing that 50% of people think flip-flops in public are an offense to nature: does that mean Goldman can rip them off my daughter’s feet? The seats do recline; I count on them reclining; I choose seats that do recline; I fly in planes that allow the most reclining, and pay for seats in them. That poll gives Knee Defender wielders no right to be vigilantes.
Asked if he thinks vigilante action is ethical, the best Goldman can do is the fatuous retort, “Is it unethical to have long legs?” The world owes him special privileges because his legs are long, then? And short people should be able to demand that tall people in the seats in front of them in theaters slump in their chair, whether its comfortable or not, I suppose…or Goldman will invent the Seat Slumper. He’s probably working on it now. Did he invent this? Or this? Same unethical principle at work: pay for a gadget, and think that it confers the right as well as the power to stop others from doing what they have every right to do, just because you don’t like it. How did you get this way?
Damon Darlin, another self-entitled jerk who writes for the New York Times— concocts other rationalizations and lame excuses. He says the device “levels the playing field.” So does a gun, when someone uses it to steal my car. He compares the reclining space to the shared armrests. Baloney. Everyone knows they are shared; polite people know that the poor sap in the middle should get first dibs on them because he’s stuck in a crummy seat. Has anyone tried to use an Armrest Defender? No.
…Flying is horrible enough without having to put up with this crap.
But how do you really feel about it, Jack?
Then the CEO of Delta decided to weigh in on the American Airlines incident.
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian has weighed in on plane seat etiquette after an encounter between two American Airlines passengers went viral in a dispute over a reclined seat.
Bastian, appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday, said passengers should ask permission from their fellow passengers before pushing back their seats.
“I think customers have the right to recline … [but] I think the proper thing to do if you’re going to recline into somebody is that you ask if it’s OK first,” said Bastian, who was asked about the recent controversy. “If someone knows there’s a tall person behind them, and they want to recline their seat, I think the polite thing would be to make certain it’s OK.” Bastian explained that when he travels coach he “never” reclines.
Gee, I wonder how often the CEO of Delta flies coach?
See the above post, Ed, and bite me. I am not going to routinely ask permission to recline, if I paid for a seat that reclines. Yes, if the person behind me has a leg in a cast or is Robert Wadlow, I will, and have, asked about reclining. Otherwise, I expect someone with a special problem to ask ME not to recline, and unless I see no good justification for the request, I will comply.