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Who’s Really at Fault in the Airplane Reclining Seat Wars?

Last month, a Southwest Airlines flight traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco was forced to make an emergency landing after a man choked a woman sitting in front of him when she tilted back her seat.

It’s not the first time there’s been a conflict like this. Over the last few years, travelers have come to blows over reclining chairs, sometimes resulting in flights needing to be diverted and landed early.

So who’s actually in the wrong? The passengers who reclines his seat, or the passenger who complains about a reclined seat?

As it turns out, the answer may be neither.

The real bad guy in this debate might just be the airlines.

“It seems like airlines are making regular economy so hellish so that it convinces passengers to upgrade to premium economy,” speculates George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, a website that tracks airline trends. “But there’s a cost in acrimony at the back of the plane.”

Mary Kirby, the editor and publisher of Runway Girl Network—a website that covers the aviation industry—agrees that the airlines have a lot to gain from the battle for legroom.

“That is very real,” she says. “Charging for extra legroom is making a mint for the airlines right now. They’re making flying coach so miserable you have to do it.”

In other words, your uncomfortable seat is basically the airline’s way of punishing you for trying to save some dough.

(We reached out to several major airlines for comment, but they either declined or have yet to respond to our requests.)

Another reason they turn a blind eye to the reclining problem: Even though the big airlines are cheap, they don’t want to look cheap.

Many budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, or EasyJet have already simply removed the option to recline seats. They call them “Pre-reclined,” which means they’re already tilted back by as much as 3 inches.

Meaning, you won’t suddenly have a seat come barreling back into you, right into your drink or laptop. You’ll just feel confined from the moment you sit down.

Pre-reclined seats bring the costs down for airlines—without the reclining mechanism, each seat weighs less, and requires less maintenance—but major airlines don’t want to look like they belong in that cost-slashing category, even though they by and large already do.

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Kirby points out there are many ways in which the major airlines are pretty much exactly like low-cost airlines, like charging for checked luggage and WiFi. But in the airlines’ eyes, a reclining seat is the final frontier between a major and a low-cost line.

Why have reclining seats become such a major issue in recent years, but was never a source of contention during the 70s, 80s or 90s? Are we just bigger assholes now, with an absurd sense of self-entitlement?

Maybe, but that's not the problem here.

The problem is that the economy class sections on airplanes are shrinking. Literally shrinking.

The average seat pitch—which is the legroom between seats—was 35 inches during the 1970s. But today, it’s just 31 inches. Somewhere over the last four decades, we lost four inches.

Dr. Kathleen Robinette, Ph.D., a professor at Oklahoma State University who's studied human body measurements for the U.S. Air Force for three decades, speculates that airlines may have reduced the legroom because of body measurement statistics.

“The 99th percentile buttock-knee length for men in the United States is 28 inches,” she says. “This is with the person sitting erect, which is not comfortable to maintain for any length of time. This is the underlying problem.”

Losing a measly four inches in legroom may not seem, in theory, like such a huge deal. So now some long-legged men and women have only three inches between their knees and the seat in front of them, and not a more cozy seven inches. But Robinette says that body measurements don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

“To be comfortable in a seat for long periods of time you must be able to move around in it,” she says. “Otherwise you develop painful ‘hot’ spots and your muscles start to ache. The seat must have some additional ease in order to accommodate the body comfortably.”

Comfort aside, there are potential safety hazards to the ever-tighter quarters, too.

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“We are starting to grow a bit concerned about the safety of high density configurations in the back of the airlines,” says Kirby.

Whenever seats are added to planes, they’re tested to make sure passengers can escape in 90 seconds—with computer simulation.

When Airbus rolled out the A380 in 2007, Kirby says they used real life testers, but only Airbus employees and members of a local gym.

“That’s not even remotely representative of the population,” she points out.  “It beggars belief.”
 
There's hope for the future. Airbus has filed a patent for a crazy new seating arrangement in which passengers are literally stacked on top of each other.

The top row is called a “mezzanine seating area”, and is accessible by stairs or a ladder. Passengers sitting in the top row can recline their seats as much as 180 degrees.

Take a look at some of their sketches:

airplane patent
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE U.S. PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE
There are a few problems with this.

One, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the legroom between seats on the floor level would be any less oppressive. It just means that airlines could add even more seats to a typical flight, and charge a premium for those extra seats because of the full reclining option.

But it’s unlikely this will ever happen, at least not in our lifetime. Even Airbus spokesperson Mary Anne Greczyn admitted in a recent interview with the LA Times that this, like most of their patents, “will never be developed, but in case the future of commercial aviation makes one of our patents relevant, our work is protected.”

For now, it’s unlikely that much can be done to counteract the tension that cramped space + delays + alcohol often engenders up in the air.

A long-legged budget-conscious traveler is advised to either secure a seat in the emergency overwing exit row—where the seat in front can’t recline. Or fork over the extra cash for those first class tickets.

Of course, if you opt for the latter, you’re doing exactly what all the major airline companies are hoping you’ll do.

The next time the passenger sitting in front of you reclines his seat almost into your lap, so much that you want to reach over and choke him in retaliation, take a moment to breathe deeply and remember who the real bad guy is.
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