Short flight? Don’t recline…

Greg Abroad

Greg Abroad

I don’t know if manners and consideration for other people are declining, or have changed as a consequence of living on top of one another as populations, especially in cities, increase exponentially. Try driving down a street that was laid out before the advent of the motor car. Both sides will be forced into deadlock and perpetual games of chicken in the no-man’s land of the middle of the road, thanks to cars parked on either side. Families living in houses with no drive think nothing of possessing three, four, five vehicles… and parking permanently outside their neighbours’ property.

Space is at a premium. Personal space doesn’t exist on the London Underground, or even on most overground trains. The awful reality of being forced to endure one another’s BO and body heat is that we have developed survival mechanisms and brand new forms of etiquette: such as strictly no eye contact, and no talking on the Tube.

A microcosm of the distressing way in which we now live like tinned sardines is found on aeroplanes, which are so overcrowded that space is at an absolute premium. It doesn’t help that designers of aeroplanes seem to have set the proximity of seats to reflect an average height of human beings based on measurements taken in the Eleventh Century. If you are less than five feet and two inches the chances are you will have a very comfortable flight even if the passenger in front of you fully reclines their seat. If you are above that height, you will struggle. My guess is that most people will suffer discomfort if the passenger in front reclines their seat, because of the simple fact that there is inadequate space between seats in the first place.

These days, on long-haul flights especially, I pay for leg room. Notice I have not said that I pay for additional leg room. Premium economy seats are offered, usually for around £60 extra on top of your already substantial air fare, which have six inches more room between your seat and the one in front compared to standard economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t need me to tell you: six inches makes all the difference in the world.

If I sit in premium economy, I have some room, and am therefore not put into a position of enduring physical pain if the person in front reclines their seats. In standard economy seats, a reclined seat goes straight into my knees and my legs are locked in the same position for hours on end. I always end up with pins and needles and cramp at best, on top of the prolonged physical discomfort.

Every recline is an invasion of somebody else’s personal space. People who recline almost certainly wouldn’t like it if somebody stood close enough to make contact with them, whilst standing on top of their toes. Yet there’s no difference between that, and what they inflict on the person behind them through their lack of consideration. Why don’t they see the double standard? I think partly it’s to do with the fact that people on planes face forwards, so you never have to see the poor sod behind you. You don’t look them in the eye as you squeeze your recline button. You can easily pretend they don’t exist. Most people will offer no more resistance to a full recline than a tut, a brief flirting with the idea of calling the air steward and making a fuss (an idea quickly abandoned for fear of ‘making a scene’), and then a few sighs before lumping it and putting up with extreme discomfort for hours on end whilst Mr or Mrs Selfish in front stretches out.

Well, not me. If you recline into me: trust me: you’ll know about it, and you’ll know I’m not happy. I will kick you in the back. Repeatedly. I will demand the chair is returned to the upright position when food is served (I have learned that stewards will be on your side in this scenario) – and boy will I eat slowly. If I spot that you are asleep, I will wait five minutes until you’re really reaching the deeper spheres of sleep, and I will choose that moment to noisily leave my seat for the toilet. I will ensure that I grab your seat ‘for support’ on my way up, and shake it until I see that I’ve woken you. I will then take as long as I can stretching my legs and taking a pee, so that you’ve stopped waiting for me to return. At that point I’ll surprise you, just as you’ve nodded off again, by returning to my seat, shaking your headrest as I sit, and kicking your back as I readjust to having literally nowhere to put my knees. It will be the worst decision you ever made. You will probably complain to the air steward that I am kicking you. I will then ask the arbitrating air steward where this ridiculous person in front expects me to put my knees if a seat is reclined into them. How do I know I will do all this? Because it is my modus operandi, worked out over too many flights made utterly miserable and beyond painful by the selfishness of the Recline Brigade.

On a short haul flight, I can think of no valid excuse to recline your seat at all. It’s not as if you’re likely to get any quality sleep, and the only possible reason to do it is to create more space for yourself in which to luxuriate.

In my view, the recline function on all seats should be tightly controlled from the cockpit. The functionality should be disabled entirely on all flights under four hours’ duration, and there should be limited optional functionality for specific periods, especially during ‘night time’, on long haul flights. That way, it takes it out of the hands of passengers to argue amongst themselves over reclining seats. Within this framework, there would still be bespoke seats with more leg room. These will be allocated at no extra charge to i) disabled people ii) those with a medical certificate proving chronic back pain or injury iii) tall people – and if any remain available, they can be paid for by anybody else who wishes for more room.

Why am I taking the time and trouble to write this now? The issue of reclining seats on aeroplanes hit the news more recently when two passengers were ejected from a flight that took a diversion after a contretemps over a reclined seat. This is nothing new. The vast majority of arguments and fights on aeroplanes arise owing to someone reclining a seat (a statistic I have done my bit to shore up). The issue over reclining seats polarises opinion, but I was struck by one particular article, which I’m not going to dignify by citing, but which, if so moved, you can easily look up; which suggested that it’s perfectly all right to recline seats on aeroplanes because you have paid for the privilege.

I was incredibly disappointed to see the non-thinking response this banal article provoked amongst those in favour of reclining, on social media sites such as Twitter. The article was problematic for many reasons, not least its outright bigotry towards tall people. It suggested that tall people are unfairly advantaged in all facets of life, and therefore if they are inconvenienced on aeroplanes, they should just suck it up. For a start, tall men (possibly women too, I’m not sure) die younger than their average height fellows, statistically speaking. Tall people are far more prone to bad backs and joint problems compared to their average-height fellows.  Some advantage! And I can’t vouch for the wealth of my tall fellows, but I am not a rich man by any definition. And even if the article happened to be true and that tall people were unfairly advantaged in society, how does that justify forcing them to suffer on aeroplanes by reclining your seat? Is the motivation revenge?

The idiotic article went on to say that as a passenger, the author has paid for a seat with a recline function, and therefore he should be paid to not recline. As far as I’m concerned, this sentiment neatly summarises what is wrong with much of society. Everything is reduced to the notion of a financial transaction, where manners and common decency can take a hike. As long as I’m all right, Jack, then that’s the only consideration. In capitalist societies, money does talk, but is that really the best the Recline Brigade has to offer?

To give a few examples of why this argument doesn’t hold water, it’s exactly the same thing you hear in hotels when people complain about noisy neighbours. Those making the noise say: well, I’ve paid for a room and the stereo system was part of the room I paid for, so if I wish to use it, screw whoever’s next door (who has, incidentally, also paid). Recliners might ask themselves if they too would be the type to enforce their music on everyone else at all hours and anti-social times. I suspect there will be a substantial crossover. Most selfish and inconsiderate people are consistent in their attitude.

If you think about it, there aren’t many modes of transport where seats can recline, and even where they can, we seldom use that function. Imagine you are travelling in a car with several passengers. Often, deference is made to the elderly, the large or the tall, who are told to sit in the passenger seat, where they have more room, rather than the back seat, where shorter people can be just as comfortable. Following the author of the article’s logic: you have paid for a car that has seats that you can not only recline, but ram straight back into the legs of your fellow passengers in the back seat in order to give yourself the advantage of even more room, whilst diminishing the comfort and space of the person behind you. Most people don’t exercise this option. Why not? What’s the difference?

Most of the time, the difference is that you will be travelling with people you know, and you don’t wish to inconvenience or upset them. Almost all of the time, flights involves travelling with perfect strangers, save for the people either side of you. Since the person behind you is unknown to you, you don’t remotely care about inconveniencing them by reclining into their legs. However, if you were logically consistent, you’d pull the same stunt in cars.

With no decent argument to excuse reclining their seats, and with a hypocritical attitude to reclining that doesn’t extend to cars, the Recline Brigade should at least just be honest. Cut the crap about rights and personal liberties and what you think you’ve paid for and admit that you recline your seat because you want extra space for yourself at the cost of the person behind you; and admit that you don’t care about the price of your comfort that somebody else pays for.

You can’t recline on buses or trains. Plenty of train journeys are inter-continental. In those instances, sleeper carriages are used. Airlines only provide an option to lie down to the filthy rich. The rest of us are sardines in a tin.

Why does this matter? International travel is a fact of life, and it is invariably stressful at the best of times. Why make it worse for your fellow human beings? As a theatre critic, there are certain theatres (I won’t mention them here) that I will not visit, no matter how alluring the show, because of the inadequate seating in the auditorium. If I know I’m going to have no leg room for hours on end, I avoid putting myself in that position. I cannot always avoid travel.

I think the solution is for airlines to stop fleecing customers for extra leg room and provide adequate leg room on all flights based on at least the average height of a human male (slightly taller than the female). It is in the interests of airlines to minimise conflict between their customers, who are already stressed owing to the nature of travel, by exercising strict controls on the recline option on seats, regulating it to function only during preordained hours on long-haul flights. Such a move would infuriate the selfish, who will bang on about an infringement of their personal liberty; but such people could use a crash course in manners and the obligations that come through living in a society, especially when we have to put up with one another more now than ever before. This in turn will make for a better world. Win-win.

Let’s get the Don’t Recline campaign started…