Q: One of the reasons I don’t like flying is the cramped quarters in coach. Last time I flew I had the misfortune of sitting behind someone who reclined his seat back as soon as the airline rules allowed. He left it that way for the rest of the flight. Is it ethical to recline your seat back on a long flight in coach? If you are on the receiving end, is it justifiable to say something? To recline your own seat? To periodically press your knees forward into the small of the reclining passenger’s back?
When I first considered your question I viewed it as raising an issue of thoughtfulness and consideration more than of ethics. However, in the Malthusian race to the bottom that characterizes today’s airline coach environment, I believe your question has distinct ethical overtones.
It certainly can be thoughtless and inconsiderate to exercise your reclining rights in coach. When a passenger seeking to maximize his creature comforts does this, what does it do to the hapless person behind them? I’ll tell you what it does. Oh, yes I will. It shrinks the visible space of the person behind them by 35 per cent. It jams their knees into the seatback. It makes working on their tray table difficult or impossible. It raises their claustrophobic anxiety level. It requires them to contort like Gumby in order to stand up or sit down again. Any questions, Mr. Recliner?
I suppose a recliner in the coach cabin could successfully defend against a charge of thoughtlessness if the person behind them was small, or did not mind yielding their personal space for some other reason. That, however, would require the recliner to inquire of their fellow aft passenger before they reclined. I have never seen this happen, although I would very much like to.
What turns the issue into one of ethics is the forcible appropriation and occupation of another person’s scarce, some would say precious, space within the packed confines of an airplane. There are no win-win solutions here. We are dealing with a classic, zero-sum game. In this situation we need ethical rules that help us tell right from wrong, and guide us in how we treat each other while we are caged in a hurtling aluminum tube at 2 5,000 feet.
You do not identify the precise cabin locations of you and your nemesis. These details are significant. For example, a passenger reclining back into the comparatively ample space of an exit-row seat has little or no ethical concern. On the other hand, if a bulkhead or exit-row passenger reclines into the space behind them, they deserve to be summarily added to the federal no-fly list for at least one year. By the way, that’s felony time in most jurisdictions.
Gray and not-so-gray areas
In between these obvious situations are some gray, and not so gray, areas. Let me be frank. Reclining to watch the in-flight movie does not justify invading a fellow passenger’s territory. If it did, you should also be able to sprawl into the space of the person next to you, and drape your legs over the top of the seat in front of you.
A flier who needs to sleep might validly lay claim to the ethical laxity of a recliner, if they have tried and really cannot sleep sitting upright, and if they are trying to sleep out of true need and not mere boredom. Still, ethics would require that they use the recliner only sparingly when necessary. When they wake up to become, say, eaters or readers, they should also promptly become upright.
The most problematic situation involves a large person who was not able to reserve an aisle seat — particularly when they are also the victim of a front recliner. Such hapless travelers deserve compassion, not judgment.
What are the ethical responses when a passenger in front of you appropriates your space?
You are certainly within your rights to talk to them, but you would probably receive a rude rebuff, and a lingering feeling of animosity that would hang like a pall over adjacent seat rows for the rest of the flight. And if you happened to succeed in your quest to reclaim your space and the flight attendant got wind of it, the airline would probably charge you an additional $25 for preferred seating.
You could recline your own seat back in an attempt to regain your lost space, but the problem with that solution is obvious. At least, it is to students of ethics.
Reader David VanSpeybroeck aptly described this all-too-human “domino” phenomenon. He saw it applied to on-street parking, in a tough Boston neighborhood in which he spent some of his earlier years. If an “outsider” parked in a resident’s “own” spot, the “owner” would break the offending car’s rear-view mirror in retaliation. The “owner” would then park in another spot, becoming an “outsider” to that other “owner,” who would break that outsider’s mirror and go park in another spot. And so on. As a result, David recalls his street as constantly littered with broken mirror glass.
Which leaves the option of periodically stretching, and happening to press your knees forward into the small of the reclining passenger’s back. Or using his headrest as a handy grab bar when Gumbying up to use the restroom.
Was that really so wrong?
Rick Pope writes Columbia River Reader's monthly ethics column. He is a Portland trial lawyer with Kirklin Thompson & Poper LLP, at www.ktp-law,com. He regularly represents plaintiffs as well as defendants, although not generally in the same case.