There's a huge row over reclining your airline seat. Is capitalism to blame?

Luke O'Neil
Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

A riveting piece of cinema has captured the world’s attention, sparking endless debate about the perils of life under capitalism. No, not Parasite, but a 30-second video of an altercation on an airplane posted to Twitter. Like the Oscar-winning film, it reminds us how the baked-in incentives of greed and competition pit us needlessly against one another, robbing us of our humanity in turn.

The video, which has swiftly marshalled partisans on either side of a longstanding and heated debate about the relative merits of ethical reclining, was shared widely after being posted by a reporter from a Fox news station in Washington on Wednesday.

In it, a man punches the reclined seat of the women in front of him persistently. Seated in the last row of the plane, like many in that space, his seat does not have the option to recline.

The woman in question, Wendi Williams, posted to Twitter last week: “I was returning from a teachers’ convention. The man asked me, with an attitude, to put my seat up because he was eating. I did. I then reclined it again when he was finished. At that point, he started hammering away at me. That’s when I started videoing and tried to call the FA.”

By a fair estimate, reaction from the tens of thousands of responses seems to be evenly divided.

“She is inconsiderate and she is in the wrong. No debate needed,” one Twitter user posted.

“If you weren’t supposed to recline the seat, they wouldn’t put a button in your armrest that causes the seat to recline,” said another.

“People who recline their seats in airplanes are selfish monsters,” added a third. “If you recline with someone behind you, that’s all I need to know about your character.”

“He punches her fucking seat and you’re asking who is wrong? If I was her, he would be under arrest the second we landed,” said a fourth.

And on and on, back and forth, it went. Even Ed Bastian, the chief executive of Delta, waded into the debate on Friday by saying that he doesn’t recline himself but believes people have the right to.

Bastian said: “The proper thing to do is: if you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s OK first. I never recline, because I don’t think it’s something as chief executive I should be doing, and I never say anything if someone reclines into me.”

If we ever figured out how to work together in solidarity, think about how high we could fly

Of course, as with many similar altercations, it is easy to determine that this could have been solved with some simple communication. The option to recline does seem to imply that any passenger may do so at their discretion, but having the right to do something doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do. Taller people, in particular, know how uncomfortable it can be to sit in a plane in the first place. Those with back trouble will say that the merciful, pitiful recline option is all that is saving them from a trip to the chiropractor.

While there’s more than enough interpersonal blame to go around, the true villains here are the airlines themselves, who have long conspired to maximize every last inch of space to reap profits at the expense of their customers in a process called “densification”.

As with any predatory capitalist industry, a failure by governments to constrain exploitation plays a role in our suffering. In 2018, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) was asked to look into the “case of the incredible shrinking airline seat” on the grounds that the much smaller size of the seats posed a safety risk. They determined there was no evidence that the smaller seats made flying any more physically dangerous. They did not, however, address the psychological implications of sitting in a cramped seat.

“People have less room in the seats; the seats are less comfortable than they used to be; and they are reacting in a very predictable way – they’re freaking out,” Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel advocate, told Marketwatch shortly after the FAA decision. “Minimum seat size could stop these mid-air confrontations.”

Related: 'Your instrument is your baby': why musicians dread careless airlines

In the face of such conditions, on top of all of the other nightmares of the flying experience – from authoritarian security theater at the gates, to the increase in cost, and the slow removal of courtesies that were once taken for granted, like meals and actually being able to bring luggage with you – it’s no wonder people are nipping at each other’s throats.

But this isn’t necessarily of flaw of capitalism, it’s the entire point. Rate of passenger irritation is merely a data point for airlines trying to determine where the line between customer hardship and maximum profit is. No doubt much expense has gone into drawing up actuarial tables pinpointing, down to the last millimeter, the difference, when it comes to our seats, between a tolerable experience and a torturous one.

Falling short of seizing and nationalizing the airlines, or dismantling capitalism as we know it, which are indeed worthy goals, it would behoove all of us, the straight-backed bathroom adjacent flier, and the luxuriating recliner, to keep in mind where the real ire belongs here.

Capitalism pits us against each other, convincing us that it is our comrades in coach who are responsible for our own misfortunes – when that is almost never the case. It’s the powerful who conspire, like parasites, to suck us dry. And as long as we’re scrabbling over scraps with one another, it keeps them off of our radar. If we ever figured out how to work together in solidarity, think about how high we could fly.

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