The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Take back the seatback! The great legroom battle of 2014.

As a society, over the past thousand-odd years, we have progressed a great deal. We no longer use medieval torture implements to punish heretics, confining them in small spaces and prodding them in the vital regions and pressing them with weights until their organs give way.

Now we reserve these indignities for people who pay to travel on airplanes.

The worst thing about air travel is that you cannot even complain about it without sounding like a hack comic from the 1980s. Anything is bearable so long as you can complain about it. But here this prerogative is denied us. Everything that has been said about airplanes has pretty much been said. And that was back before the food really got bad. At least those comics had actual airplane food to complain about, not eleven (never more than eleven) pieces of cardboard cleverly disguised as off-brand pretzels.

And we are being packed tighter and tighter on planes, as Alison Griswold points out at Slate. The next Boeing 737, a plane that seated 100 when it debuted, will seat 200. Airline customers are not packed like sardines. If sardines were packed like airplane customers, they would indignantly refuse to enter the tin. People bounded in a nutshell really are kings of infinite space (and legroom) compared to air travelers.

I’m sure this is justified somehow. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was only 5-feet-8 1/2 inches tall, fitted his buildings with low, cramped ceilings on the grounds that this was “human scale.” Maybe this is what every airline is thinking as well. If it is, this makes you wonder if they have seen a human lately. Maybe they only look at the people on the covers of magazines, where you might be led to believe that Americans have gotten unrealistically thin and willowy, with very even complexions.

This finally hit a boiling point Monday on a United Airlines flight. From the Associated Press:

The fight started when the male passenger, seated in a middle seat of row 12, used the Knee Defender to stop the woman in front of him from reclining while he was on his laptop, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak.
A flight attendant asked him to remove the device and he refused. The woman then stood up, turned around and threw a cup of water at him, the official says. That’s when United decided to land in Chicago. The two passengers were not allowed to continue to Denver.

And, poignantly:

Both passengers were sitting in United’s Economy Plus section, the part of the plane that has four more inches of legroom than the rest of coach.

These were people who cared about their legroom — enough to pay approximately $39/leg for it.

It is hard to figure out whom to root for in this scenario. On the one hand, no one should throw water at anyone, unless the person in question is green and has been threatening poor Toto. On the other hand, the Knee Defender is banned by most airlines. On a third hand (I don’t know whose hand this is, but thanks for lending it to me), it seems to me that reclining is a privilege, not a right. For three reasons:

1) Leaning back in an airplane is something you can only do for part of the flight anyway, so it is no great loss.

2) If you think you are actually more comfortable because you have leaned back an inch or three, you and I have a radically different definitions of comfort.

3) While leaning back makes you only moderately more comfortable, it makes the person behind you vastly more uncomfortable and prevents him or her from getting any typing done.

This is a case where a woman should have leaned in instead of back.

But here I think people disagree with me.

And I worry that this is going to unleash total war. It will be just as bad as the Over Or Under The Top Of The Roll toilet paper wars, the ones that loom over every household, threatening to tear it right down the middle like a low-ply toilet tissue. Which right trumps the other? The right to lap space and legroom? Or the right to recline? One must prevail. You cannot have both. The airplane is designed so that Recliners must sit in front of Lappists. Conflict, when we have only 28-odd inches of legroom to begin with, is bound to occur.

There is, of course, a simple way out of this. Just give us a survey and use it to put all the recliners on one side of the plane where they can recline to their hearts’ content, and all the people who want lap space on the other side of the plane where they can type away undisturbed. Also, while you’re at it, move the babies and the ominous wing creatures that William Shatner saw in that one Twilight Zone episode.

But what are the odds of that? Knowing airlines, it is far more likely that they will just get rid of the legroom altogether. This is why we can’t have nice things.