Oh, No! Not The Seat Reclining Ethics Debate Again!

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.

A woman had posted on Twitter mid-flight:

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.

From CNN:

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.

24 thoughts on “Oh, No! Not The Seat Reclining Ethics Debate Again!

  1. The seat puncher is operating at the emotional level of 2 year old and the flight attendant who attempted to mollify him with rum should be fired for her ineptitude. Why is frightening and violently harassing the person in the seat in front of you acceptable in any circumstance?

    • Why is frightening and violently harassing the person in the seat in front of you acceptable in any circumstance?

      It depends. was he wearing a MAGA hat? Was he a deplorable? Did he look like he voted for Trump?

      If the answer to these or many other Woke questions are ‘yes,’ then he had it coming.

  2. ”Why is frightening and violently harassing the person in the seat in front of you acceptable in any circumstance?”

    If the person in front is wearing a MAGA hat, getting their seat punched would be the least of their concerns.

  3. From an article in the Chicago Tribune Apr 19, 2019: “At United, economy seats generally recline about 2 inches on domestic flights, though the A320 offers 3 inches. American moved from a 4-inch recline to 2 inches on most domestic flights in coach about three years ago.”

    Regardless of whether it is 4 inches or 2 inches I cannot see how that makes much difference. It never bothered me when the person in front of me reclined. Besides, I always flew business if the flight was over 6 hours (like international); otherwise, I flew coach. The seats just don’t move much at all when you recline in coach; so, I can’t see how that’s going to be an issue for the person behind my seat. The first time I used recline I thought to myself, “That’s recline?”. If a person reclines then the person behind them can likewise recline and recapture the 2 to 4 inches if it’s an issue for them.

      • I notice a huge difference. I’m 6’2″, I paid for a seat that has a tray that is moderately useful to me. The seat being reclined, has, in several instances put the tray right in my lap where I have to stare straight down and what little space my arms did have to manipulate anything on the tray are now fairly useless given I can’t get my elbows far enough back. I’m already having to lean over to use the tray as is, the reclined seat makes that extra uncomfortable.

        It’s not bought and paid for space. It’s shared space. Manners rule the day here. Ask before reclining. Most people would say yes. I’d say yes, even knowing what a crappy scenario I’m thrust into, but the manners make all the difference, because I know they are thinking and they will probably courteously NOT encroach on *shared* space for the entire flight.

  4. When I heard the Delta CEO weigh in my thought was why don’t the airlines remove a couple of rows so people don’t have to ask permission. I believe I read somewhere a few years ago that an airline was considering stacking passengers vertically (standing with restraints) on short commuter flights to increase profits.

  5. “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,”

    If I have a right to recline why do I need to ask permission. What a maroon.

    • Because sometimes what you have a right to do isn’t the ethical thing to do. That’s the point of ethics. When people make each others’ lives miserable by acting within their rights, I call it a “noise war”. If we want to avoid that, we have to learn how to compromise.

  6. I certainly agree that the person in front of me has the right to recline their seat as far as it will go, just as I do. They don’t need my permission, but being 6′ 4″ I do appreciate a warning so that I can position myself to avoid a fractured patella.

    • It would be generally nice to *inform* (not ask) the person behind just in case they happened to be doing anything that might be disrupted (a drink or laptop on the tray , etc). But just as a general courtesy, not a requirement.

  7. The person in front of me doesn’t need to ask permission. It’s slamming the seat back as soon as they sit down that aggravates me. I’ve been putting my bag under the seat before take off and been hit in the face by the slammers. Some domestic first class isn’t any roomier than economy.

  8. I think the person sitting has exactly the same right to the space on their lap that the person has to recline. Both paid the same money for flying in a comfortable seat. I think the better thing is to end all reclining of seats. If they do not move anymore, they cannot drop into someone else’s laptop. Also, there’s never enough space to pass behind a reclined seat to get to the aisle without ‘punching’ and rocking the recliner and strangling the person on between.

    The whole idea of reclining only works if EVERYONE reclines and there is no schmuck in the back who cannot breathe. These aren’t bedrooms or living room recliners, but sardine cans. Fly first class if you want to recline,

    • So make everyone uncomfortable because of a tiny minority who object to seats reclining? This is called “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” You pay to sit comfortably while you fly, not to use a laptop. So read a book instead. Again, if there’s a special issue with reclining, speak up, ask to trade seats with someone, get a seat in the exit row, buy a first class ticket.

      • I said it below, but to be clear: Marie is right… The fact that your seat reclines gives you the ability to do it, not the right. And it doesn’t make it right to exercise that ability. If your seat is broken and it doesn’t recline, or you’re seated in the last row of the cabin, which can’t recline, you don’t get a refund, you just don’t get to recline.

        Further, reclining into someone’s space, especially in a way that causes them physical pain, makes you an asshole.And maybe if people weren’t being assholes, we wouldn’t be talking about seats that don’t recline.

        • When my seat doesn’t incline, in fact I have demanded to be reseated, and when I have not been reseated, I have written to the airline, and received compensation. Twice. Your position makes no logical nor ethical sense. I consent to having those in front of me recline by purchasing the seat. If I do not so consent, then my options are as I stated them: First class, exit row, or don’t fly.

          As I said, the rare, very rare traveler who is put in “pain” by a seat reclining can make a special request, and yes, it would then be assholish to refuse said request.

          In the same category is is the passenger next to me who uses his reading light, shining in my eyes while I am trying to sleep. But he has a right to his seat light, though it impinges on my comfort. I do NOT expect him to ask my permission to read.

  9. I disagree. And I think the idea that you “own the space” is kind of dumb.

    Before I waded into this, I checked to see if I commented on this last time, and if my position has changed… I didn’t. I don’t know why, I ‘m almost certain I disagreed with you then too.

    Regardless. Jack, you’ve flown enough times to notice that there are three seats for three people, with 6 arms collectively, but only 4 armrests, in your average row, right? Two seats and three rests for a smaller plane? Do all three people have the god-granted right by dint of their plane ticket to demand arm restature? Cause gee, I might not be best at math, but it seems like something is missing.

    No, there is no contract that says how many arm rests you can get, there is no guarantee that your seat can recline, I mean… Really, the seat proce for the last row of seats in the plane is the same as the price for any other row, and guess what? They can’t recline.

    This is one of those things where airlines are trying to sardine as many people into a carriage as possible, and so if there’s an actual person to blame, it’s them, because they’ve set up these issues by design.

    That said, until airlines literally start playing human Jenga in their holds, it’s kind of up to people not to be assholes, and if you’re sitting in front of someone and recline your seat into them, you’re the asshole. You’re purposefully making their life worse, even if it’s on a fairly petty level, for your own betterment. I don’t know how else you can spin that. Don’t be an asshole… Even if you have a “right” to be one.

    • I’ve never been on a plane in my life in which the seat “reclines INTO” me or anyone. The arm rests are not a good analogy. One arm rest between two people is obviously jointly “owned.” Thus, shared. I assume that the seat in front of me will recline, and reserve that space for the recliner. My legs are straight and under the seat in front of me, as anyone under about 6’8 can manage. As I have stated elsewhere, the MBA player can make a special request and I will kindly comply, but I’m not going to measure every flier behind me.

      Yes, one reclines slowly and carefully. And that fulfills the extent of my obligations to the non-NBA star behind me.

      • In order,

        I think that if this weren’t an issue, then it wouldn’t come up as often as it does, and when it does, there wouldn’t be so many people empathizing, the knee defender wouldn’t exist, and we’d all be flying in aero-bliss.

        Second, the arm rests are a *perfect* analogy. You’ve flown probably as much as I have, heck, probably more. There’s a tray on the seat in front of you, for your use, right? Do you have to ask the passenger in front of you if you can use the tray that’s in “their space”? No, of course not, the airline has double sold the space behind the chair just like they double sold the armrest, and they leave if up to the sardines to pack themselves.

        Third… I think this demonstrates almost perfectly rationalization #24; Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)

        “In the climax of “Twelve Angry Men,” a juror who had been advocating a guilty verdict for a teenager accused of murdering his father finds himself the only remaining member of the jury who refuses to accept that there is reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. It is dawning on him that his certitude is based more on stubbornness, ego, emotion and bias than facts, but before he gives in, his last argument to support his vote is to shout, “It’s my right!” He finally realizes, however, that his right to be unjust doesn’t excuse him. We all have a right to do many terrible, unfair, wrongful and harmful things. People have a right to have children they can’t take care of, for example. They have a right to be unfaithful to their spouses, to misrepresent their affections to partners who think they are loved. Parents have a right to warp the values and education of their children. People have a right to accept jobs that they are unqualified to do well; they have a right not to retire long after they know they have become incompetent. We have a right to be biased, to be prejudiced, and to hate irrationally. We have a right to vote, even if we vote ignorantly and without meeting our duty to be informed citizens. The issue in which this rationalization was raised on Ethics Alarms was a news story about a grandmother who killed her cat and kittens to punish her grandchildren. Yes, she had a right to kill them, for they were her property. A billionaire could buy a great work of art and destroy it on a whim, too. Gratuitous, wanton or cruel destruction of property that others derive joy or practical use from, however, is still unethical.

        Yes, we often have a right to do something wrong. Using rights that way, however, is to abuse them”

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