Reclining Airplane Passengers of the World, Unite!

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Whiners be damned: A reclined seat is way more comfortable than an upright one, especially on a long flight.

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We are all better off when we choose to recline together. (Rebecca J. Rosen/Feliks Kogan/Shutterstock)

I have been hearing a chorus of people lately claiming that reclining your seat on an airplane is inconsiderate and just plain wrong, and this Dan Kois article in Slate is the last straw:

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same. But of course someone always will recline her seat, like the people in the first row, or the woman in front of me, whom I hate. (At least we're not in the middle seat. People who recline middle seats are history's greatest monsters.)

Yes, seat recliners are monsters. Kois also calls us sociopaths. I certainly hope you join me in being struck by the complete and utter wrongness of this claim. First of all, the seats recline. They're more comfortable when they recline. Asking people not to recline because it's an inconvenience to the person behind them is the ultimate losing battle.

But there's also a massive factual error here: that everyone is worse off when the seats are reclined. I've done my share of flying, and I say that's nonsense -- objectively so. The worst-case scenario, sitting upright while the person in front of you is reclined, means losing about six inches of clearance between your head and the seat in front of you. You're not using that space, so what's the problem?

And here's the thing: a reclined seat is way more comfortable than an upright seat, especially on a long flight. If you want any chance of sleeping, reclining is essential. But it's also more comfortable for reading, watching a movie, or most anything a normal person would do on an airplane. A reclined airplane seat is a narrowly cruel an easy chair, but it's an easy chair nonetheless. A reclined seat is relaxing. No way is an airplane full of upright seats better for everyone than an airplane of reclined seats.

But additionally, the increase in comfort to person A who puts their seat down is greater than the decrease in comfort to person B who has the person in front of them put the seat down. Not only is the overall situation better if everyone's reclined, but even a single reclined seat causes a net increase in comfort.

So who are these people who complain about seat recliners? I think they fall into three groups: writers, tech nerds, and business travelers. Together, these people account for a small fraction of the overall population, but a much higher proportion of people flying on any given day. They're also vastly overrepresented in what you read online, which explains the preponderance of online opinion that seat reclining is wrong. It also explains why these people are so staunch in their opinion -- they're trying to work on their laptops on the plane.

Indisputably, working on a plane on a full-sized laptop with the seat in front of you reclined is difficult. But when you put it this way, I hope the situation becomes a lot clearer: Is your right to type on your laptop really more important than the other person's comfort? If you fly so much and can't be away from your keyboard for those few hours, why not get yourself an 11-inch MacBook Air or a Microsoft Surface or something?

I will concede to an exception for tall people here. If you're well over six feet and you can't afford first class and didn't think far enough ahead to request the emergency exit lane or the front row of the cabin, you're in a real jam. In this case I think you're well within your rights to plead your case to the person in front of you. But be clear: You're asking them to make a sacrifice because your lack of forethought. (Also: Couldn't you just recline your seat and be right back where you started?)

I leave you with this, anti-recliners: We have heard your arguments, and we find them unpersuasive. We will continue to recline our seats, and you will lose this fight. And so help me if I catch someone behind me using the Knee Defender.

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Alesh Houdek lives and works in Miami. He writes occasionally at Critical Miami.

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