Public opinion is divided over a video showing a woman reclining and a tall man, cramped behind her, hitting her seat in retaliation.
Legroom has decreased around 12 to 18 percent since the early 2000s, with proposed seat designs that claim they'll help.
Without an airline-level intervention, consumer options are limited to paying more or using aftermarket stopgaps.
A viral video shows a tall man cramped in an American Airlines seat—evidently in the very back of the plane—behind a woman with her seat reclined. The man appears to be steadily hitting the seatback in retaliation. (It's not clear why the woman isn't just asking him to stop or involving a flight attendant.)
Responses to the video are ... divided. On one hand, if the woman knows the seat behind hers doesn’t recline, it’s not cool to lean back when the man doesn’t have that option. On the other hand? Repeatedly punching the seat is weaksauce. Just take it up with the airline, guy.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian, perhaps sensing an opportunity to dunk on his rival airline, jumped into the conversation when he appeared on CNBC's Squawk Box and said:
"The proper thing to do is if you're going to recline into somebody, that you ask if it's okay first, and then you do it. But I think at the same time, every customer has [this] decision. I never say anything myself, though."
Bastian continued, "I never recline because I don't think it's something that, since I'm the CEO of the airline, I should be reclining my seat."
While public opinion is mixed, the data decidedly isn’t: legroom has almost disappeared entirely from flights over the last two decades. “In the early 2000s, rows in economy used to be 34 inches (86 centimeters) to 35 inches apart; now 30 to 31 inches is typical, though 28 inches can be found on short flights,” Time reported in 2019. “Seats have narrowed, too, from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches on average.” And it’s getting worse, as individual airlines begin refitting airplanes with more seats than even their manufacturers recommend.
If 31 inches is the high end (gulp) of typical range, let’s say the seatback is about four inches thick. The average American man is 5-foot-9, and let’s estimate his inseam length is about 32 inches. Our thighs are generally longer than our calves, so let’s say 17 inches and 15 inches. When seated, there’s probably another 8 inches of folded torso (your butt). If we start with 31 inches and then subtract 4 inches of seat, 17 inches of leg length, and 8 inches of torso, that leaves just 2 precious inches of “legroom.” That’s for an average man with an average inseam, sitting totally upright—without considering the seat width at all, or what happens if someone has to get by to use the restroom.
Startups and researchers have flooded into the airplane seat space, with suggestions that could reduce discomfort using technology or dystopian “disruptions” to the idea of sitting. One lightweight, thin, and foldable seat could increase legroom simply by being much thinner and lower profile than existing, more padded seats.
And then there’s ... whatever this is.
In 2018, an Italian company suggested a “standing seat” that’s supposed to work like a saddle on a horse. In its sales materials, the company even says outright that the goal is to squeeze in more seats and increase profits with "ultra-high density." The seat is named the Skyrider, hinting at its rollercoaster vibes. The upright saddle seats make for "installation of the seat at a reduced pitch, while maintaining an adequate comfort."
Any concept for seating is working against massive airline pressure to keep packing more seats into the same airplane, so the solutions to these problems are all Band-Aids, not cures. I'm not persuaded that a seat with even less padding or one that I'm standing in is an improvement on any axis. But there are some things you can do to increase your comfort or decrease the discomfort of those around you.
First, if you’re really willing to be That Guy on a flight, you can invest in the Knee Defender. This is a set of clamps that prevent the seat in front of you from reclining. Jesse Thorn, the founder of the podcast network Maximum Fun, explained on Twitter how seats recline into the already nonexistent legroom:
So preventing reclining altogether can be a stopgap solution. In 2012, This American Life covered the Knee Defender in an episode tellingly named “Getting Away with It.” Host Ira Glass, who is 6-foot-2, takes a flight with a frequent-flying fellow journalist who is also 6-foot-2 and using the Knee Defender. “So yeah, I'm conflicted right now because hey, I got some space here,” the journalist told Glass afterward. “My knees feel good. I'm still being a dick.”
The other major thing you can do is pay extra to reserve seats in exit rows and other spots that have more legroom. Is this essentially a tax on being tall? Yes, and at the same time, it’s 1 percent of the inconvenience that elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers have dealt with in many more contexts and for a much longer time. In fact, when airlines decide to cram in more seats, they must still be able to demonstrate that passengers can fully evacuate the plane in 90 seconds, but that estimate excludes passengers with disabilities or slower passengers altogether.
The tradeoff for taller people’s extreme discomfort on flights is that airlines overall can offer much cheaper flights, which they claim is something consumers demand. In the future, could tall people have to buy extended seats the way they have to buy big-and-tall clothes? Perhaps a better question might be why airline seats still recline at all, given how much the ambient space on a plane has been reduced. If your seat couldn’t recline to begin with, you’d avoid these problems in the first place.
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