April 11th, 2014

On an international, meaning very, very long, flight sometime last year, I found myself in an awkward situation. Having patiently waited through the takeoff and ascent for the moment when I could marginally ease the ergonomic nightmare of my economy seat by leaning it back those precious few inches, I pressed the button, pushed back, and was tapped on the shoulder by the woman behind me. She wanted me to keep my seat upright.

This is a monstrous request. I’ve heard about the horrors of limited leg room from very tall people. I believe it when I’m told that a leaned back airplane seat presses into their knees and tortures them in ways that may very well miniaturize the discomfort I feel in my back with the seat bolt upright. Had the person I found when I turned around been 6’5”, I may have felt a little more charitable, and considered doing some relative suffering equations.

The woman, however, was short. Her knees were nowhere near the back of my seat. She only just preferred that I not lean back, wanted those few inches for herself, and thought that it was her right to ask that of me. I told her that that felt unreasonable to me and kept the seat where it was. I felt a bit guilty, it’s not easy to put your comfort over someone else’s, especially when they’re going to be two feet away from you for the next ten hours, but pretty soon I relaxed, put it out of my mind.

When the meal was served, though, she tapped again. This time I acquiesced. Some airlines even ask you to do that, or so I remember from a time when meal service was more normal. As soon as the trays were taken away, though, I pushed myself back, and again she tapped. Hadn’t I already answered this question? I looked at the traveling companion to her right, and at my own. His seat was back and her friend hadn’t said a word about it. Why did she think this was an appropriate thing to ask of someone? I stayed where I was, but the rest of the flight was haunted by a sense that I was torturing the woman behind me for the sake of my own pleasure.

In retrospect, this is not right. Those inches belonged to me. In a perfect world we’d all have another foot or two on all sides of us, but in the reality of increasingly stingy airlines who know you’ll use their services no matter how poorly they treat you, space is a scarcity and the priority is for my back muscles to relax, not for this woman to have more free space around her head. It was evil of her to not respect that.

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