Coach seats on airlines make us hate each other

Travel & Adventure — Sean Bonner @ 2:44 pm
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There is something inherently aggressive about airline seats pushing back into fellow passengers. It shows a complete disregard for their personal space, especially when slammed back in one swift movement without even a look behind to see what might be in the way at any given moment. I’ve been hit, had drinks spilled and nearly cracked a laptop screen because someone someone pushed the recline button and went back full force. And of course because I think about this I’ve become extremely self conscious about it and won’t dare to recline my own seat if the one behind me is occupied out of fear that I’m being an ass. But that’s kind of the problem, when someone does this I immediately hate them. Meanwhile they are only doing exactly what the seat they paid for was designed to do – so where is the middle ground?

The problem is that these seats were designed many years ago and as we all know airlines haven’t been raking in the bucks they used to so they’ve been forced to try and add more seats on flights by pushing rows closer together which makes a reclining seat back far more intrusive than it used to be. I’ve actually taken to asking people if it’s ok if I put my seat back just a little bit before doing it, and I resent when people don’t do the same. And don’t get me started about kids who put the seat forward and backward 300x times in a single flight.

On my last flight back to LA from Washington DC the plane was rather empty, including the seat in front and behind me which was nice because I wasn’t worried about any of this. Until midway through the flight when some guy decided his row was too crowded and moved into the empty row in front of me, in the seat in front of me and promptly threw back his seat. I tapped him on the head and asked he he had any idea that he’d just slammed his seat into my legs and knocked my laptop onto the floor (which he had). He replied that he didn’t, but it wasn’t his fault. I told him of course I didn’t blame him, and hoped he also wouldn’t blame me when the turbulence we were about to have just as I was standing up caused me to dump my beverage all over him.

I guess he realized I was serious and brought the seat back up and moved to a different row with no one behind him.

But my ranting and raving point to this is these seats suck major ass, but taking 3 seconds to check with the person behind you before moving into their space goes a very long way towards maintaining positive relationships with your fellow man (or woman).



  1. A-fucking-men to that.

    As a tall person, I really despise people who aren’t courteous about this. I’ve already got my knees up against the seat in front of me before it’s reclined. When someone pushes the seat all the way back, I typically have to go for a “wide stance” to protect my knees, especially from the metal supports of the tray table.

    If I’m traveling with my kids and someone is a douche about this, I get revenge by letting them run amok instead of ensuring that they’re *not* being inconsiderate assholes. “Oh, my child is bumping the top of your head with his toy? Sorry about that.”

    Comment by ttrentham — August 27, 2009 @ 3:34 pm
  2. How I wish as flight attendants (or their video counterparts) were going through their “seat cushion can be used as a flotation device” spiel they would include a line or two about responsible and considerate seatback usage.

    I have pretty strict rules regarding when (or mainly if) I’ll recline an airline seat. First off, if the flight is four-hours or less I just leave the seat back in its full and upright position the entire trip — even if the person seated in front of me cranks it all the way into my space. On longer flights I’ll usually push it back at some point (such as when I’m trying to get some sleep), but up it comes during meals (again, even if the seat in front of mine is fully reclined) because I know how crucial that extra couple inches can be for the person behind me.

    Comment by Will Campbell — August 27, 2009 @ 9:17 pm
  3. Totally agree, but unfortunately, as human nature goes, you’re doomed to continual disappointment. Some people, like you and I, are considerate and aware of our surroundings. Others aren’t. And airline seats bring this reality into stark and sometimes painful focus.

    Comment by chrisr — August 27, 2009 @ 10:33 pm
  4. Agreed! I am somewhat more accepting if someone only puts the seat back when they are trying to sleep but the people that have the seat back for the whole flight are very inconsiderate. I only lean my seat back if I look and the person behind me has theirs back.

    Usually when I’m flying I’m really careful about bumping the seat in front of me and putting my tray down carefully. However, if the person in front has their seat reclined then all bets are off. I won’t kick them on purpose but I do feel some sense of satisfaction when my meal tray drops quickly and jars their seat.

    I’m sure I sound old beyond my 31 years when I say this but, I think it’s part of a general rise in the feeling of self-importance and not giving a crap about others. Oh well, what can you do other then give ’em a few extra bumps when getting up to go to the bathroom.

    Comment by Adam — August 27, 2009 @ 10:44 pm
  5. Sure courtesy is appreciated, I always recline my seat slowly, usually in incriments. But I’m not goig to ask the person behind me if it’s ok to do so. If it bothers you that much, don’t you think you should just pay for an upgrade?

    Comment by Hilary — August 27, 2009 @ 10:46 pm
  6. That’s why I always fly first class… don’t I wish. I always try to lower my seat back VERY slowly, but once in a while this approach fails and I swing back and Scare me and the person behind me. :/ From now on I will let person behind me know I’d like to recline.

    Comment by Paul Grunt — August 27, 2009 @ 11:00 pm
  7. I hate these people with something approaching biblical fury. To be so utterly selfish and inconsiderate when you’re unfortunate enough to all be sharing cattle class defies belief. Airlines should disable these seats, esp. on short-haul flights.

    Once I flew cattle from London to Sydney – a mere 24 hours in a cabin designed, I think, for leprechauns. They even had those infuriating midget foot rest things – they were immovable and at over 6 feet tall they turned the experience into torture for me, but they also turned into a useful weapon against the aggressive-recliner: simply place your feet on the foot rest, stick your knees firmly into the offending seat-back, and don’t budge. Eventually the lazy, selfish idiot in front will assume his recliner is broken and give up.

    Comment by Lee — August 27, 2009 @ 11:06 pm
  8. @Hilary You really expect people to have to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars more for the pleasure of not having to hope the person sitting in front of them isn’t a dick? Elitist much?

    Comment by Sean Bonner — August 27, 2009 @ 11:15 pm
  9. Word!
    As a guy with long legs, I always scout out the person who is sitting in front of me before we take off to see what type of ‘seat-back-leaner’ they are going to be. It’s a little game I play, I suppose. Lately though- it seems like I always get the guy who released his seat-back button as we’re still climbing altitude- which feels GREAT on my knees.

    I had one incident where I KNEW this guy was going to throw it back as soon as could because he had already tried to have it back during take-off- and then proceeded to huff and puff when the flight attendant asked him to bring it up.

    Like you, I immediately hated the guy. So I kept my legs straight with my knees already on the tray table. He goes to move his seat back and he’s stuck because my knees were in the way. Instead of looking back to see if we could reach some compromise, before I knew it, he was picking up his whole body weight and throwing it into the seat-back violently with his thumb on the release button- many times. He was screaming: “I PAID FOR A SEAT THE LEANS BACK! I SHOULD BE ABLE TO LEAN BACK!”
    I was totally assaulted with a seat-back and everyone around me saw it. He actually cut my knee and drew a little blood.

    I had to switch seats because Mr. Important refused to move. The flight attendants saw it all and were really cool. They asked if I wanted to press charges for assault. I was about to go through with it until they informed me that the FBI would have to be involved since we were in the air. Too much trouble for a red-eye- so they had the SFPD waiting at the gate when we landed to have a little “talk” with the guy. That was a little bit of sweet justice. I got to leave the gate smiling while he was scowling at me with SFPD in his face.

    Comment by adam — August 27, 2009 @ 11:50 pm
  10. Airlines clearly tell all on board when they “can” move their seats back and when they “must” move them forward.

    Be smart, not angry and take defensive action if you need it. I don’t like it either but why set myself up for some other idiot to ruin my day?

    Comment by Mac — August 28, 2009 @ 2:36 am
  11. Sean, just reclining your seat doesn’t make you automatically a dick or an elitist. Slamming the seat back is inconsiderate, sure, but inching it back like Hillary does seems reasonable, and is surely above average on the courtesy scale.

    Arguing for more consideration is fine. Being a dick while complaining about other people being dicks may be fun, but I doubt it’s very effective.

    Comment by William — August 28, 2009 @ 4:28 am
  12. A similar frustration for me is the person behind me who uses my seat-back as their cane or leverage when getting in and out of their seat. I have had my hair ripped out on most flights due to this behavior, not to mention being woken if it’s a long flight. I would bet that those people are also aggressive recliners without consideration to those in front and behind.

    I am a slow-incremental recliner and generally don’t recline more than half-way unless I can see that the person behind me is either fully reclined or isn’t using their tray table. I definitely never use the seat-back in front of me to help me get out of my seat.

    I wish more people had other-ation in their thoughts, especially in tight quarters.

    Comment by Eve — August 28, 2009 @ 2:13 pm
  13. Airline seats shouldn’t be allowed to recline, period. Except in first class, of course. Why should economy customers be allowed such an extravagant comfort? Fuck them – they’re poor.

    If the douche in front of you drops his seat back without asking you first, you are duty-bound to choke that sonofabitch with piano wire.

    Lastly, if you can’t fly from Philadelphia to Buffalo (por ejemplo) without reclining your seat, you deserve a punch in the throat.

    Good day, sir.

    Comment by Mr. Clean — August 28, 2009 @ 3:07 pm
  14. Chiming in from the other side, I’m someone with serious back problems that are severely agitated by the angle of a standard, fully upright airline seat. I *have* to recline my seat. The alternative is enduring however many hours of severe discomfort, followed by lingering soreness for the day or so it takes to recover. That said, it would never even occur to me to forcefully slam the seat backwards. What would be the point? It’s not like applying force is going to make it go back any further. If you push the recline button while resting your back against the seat, my experience is that the seat sinks back fairly slowly. I’ve never had anyone complain in any case.

    Comment by Mib — August 28, 2009 @ 6:44 pm
  15. I think I’m in love with you based on this issue alone.

    I’m 5’9” 1/2 (The 1/2 is important when dealing with legroom and airline seats) and already have problems with legroom; having a seat thrown back into my knees at full-force is extraordinarily painful.

    There’s also something to be said for someone who has the seat fully reclined for an entire trip… a looong trip. I flew from London to Chicago with a seat in my knees and male-pattern baldness in my face.

    Don’t get me started on kids kicking the seat. Kids yell; I get that. You can’t really stop it. But you can damn well stop your little monster from kicking mt seat. I’m talking to you Lady on United Airlines from DC to Chicago. Suck it.

    I’m flying from Chicago to San Francisco in about a week. I’m not going to be as agreeable and polite as previous flights. Knees in the back of the seat it will be.

    Comment by Cheryl — August 31, 2009 @ 4:02 pm
  16. I totally agree! My husband is 6’3″ and I frequently (in my post-Seattle fitting-in-with-culture-way) passively aggressively say very snarky things about people who just randomly lean their seats back. I have yet to have it make a difference, and generally I’m pretty mellow- but this airline seat thing really bugs me when someone does it to my husband! Thanks for not being a jerk, and having some common courtesy Sean :)

    Comment by Beth — September 2, 2009 @ 11:54 pm
  17. I never ask for permission to put my seat back, but I would never expect someone to ask me for permission either.

    Anyone that takes a flight, particularly a long one, has paid a lot of money for a seat and is going to have to endure a journey that is going to be arduous and uncomfortable – I think others should be allowed to make themselves as comfortable as possible, and if that means putting your seat down, then I have no problems with it. The way I see it, we’re all in the same boat, so I’m not going to begrudge another the right to put their seat down.

    Besides which, I do see it as a right that we pay for, and the inconvenience of having a seat put down as simply something we’ve got to put up with as part and parcel of a flight.

    Also, perhaps not everyone will have deliberately put their seat back in order to be rude and perhaps it doesn’t warrant such anger! Maybe they were tired and forgot, or just didn’t realise it might be an issue for you. Responding by simply bringing the issue to their attention and giving them the opportunity to apologise might be a more polite way to go about it (if it is manners that is at issue here), rather than assuming malice, showing immediate anger or by trying to get back at them. If the are rude after that, then perhaps you have a case…

    Comment by notsurewhatthefussisabout — September 4, 2009 @ 9:33 am
  18. How amusing is it that the guy who is defending this and saying he never asks or cares what others think is anonymous and named “not sure what all the fuss is about”

    Talk about total disregard for your fellow people…

    Comment by Sean Bonner — September 9, 2009 @ 12:07 am
  19. If someone slams their seatback onto me, I just punch the seat right where their head is exactly as hard as they rammed it back. Eye for an eye.

    Comment by Jerk — September 16, 2009 @ 5:40 am
  20. Just fly first class!!

    Comment by Ben — February 20, 2010 @ 12:07 am
  21. Ben, sure thing. It’s cool to send you the bill, yeah?

    Comment by Sean Bonner — February 20, 2010 @ 12:16 am
  22. Yep, been there, done that. This has happened to me several times lately… on 10.5 hr & 12-hour flights (which were back to back, nonetheless!).

    You know what works really well? Fume silently for 30 seconds and then tap them on the shoulder and say, as nicely and solicitously as you possibly can manage,

    “Oh, I’m so sorry, can you please shift your seat up just a bit, because x? It would really help me.” Then give them an “aren’t airlines thieving fuckers but whatyougonnado?” smile.

    Throwing the seatback viciously (which some people definitely do) or without regard is a “silent” act. Very few people have the balls to publically ignore you when you are polite and use the word “because.”

    They rely on the assumption that you will follow the social pact and not say anything. Which you can exploit to your advantage!

    (“because x” can be whatever reason you like, pretty much, whether you wanna claim issues with knee-squishing or whatever. Last time I used it, I asked “because I can’t hold my book up.” Not exactly life or death. He glared at me but complied anyway!)

    Here’s an NYT article about research studies that shows how effective the word “because” is in simple social nicety requests — regardless of if it’s a good reason or not:

    Human beings are social animals. We live and die by our social ties. So social appeals are powerful, and more importantly, you’re doing good by using them. We all need to be reminded that we’re interconnected. Touchy-feely BS? Maybe, but other research shows that even somewhat annoying social ties (like helping your neighbors) increase well-being!

    So, fight back with love, or whatever. 😉

    Comment by Amy — March 4, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

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