Nothing gets people riled up more than a lack of airplane etiquette. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be able to agree on what exactly that etiquette should be. I remember reading about the Knee Defender, a little gadget that keeps the seat of the airline passenger in front of you from reclining, and thinking it was a fight waiting to happen. It took a while—from 2003, when it was invented, until yesterday—but not surprisingly, one did break out on a United flight yesterday, when the would-be recliner tossed a cup of water in the face of the guy behind her—and this was in the Economy Plus section where they had four whole inches of “extra” legroom.
Whenever people are crammed into a little metal tube hurtling thousands of feet above the earth, smelling each other’s lunch and other, less savory odors, every little bit of space you can carve out for yourself is priceless. Those middle armrests? By all rights they should go to the poor schmo in the middle seat who is hemmed in on both sides by strangers (though some would contest that). But don’t let your knee flop over past that invisible line that extends from the armrest to the seatback in front of you if you know what's good for you.
But that seatback, oh the seatback! Does the right to dictate its teeny, weeny ability to recline belong to the person whose back leans against it in a desperate bid for some shut-eye, or to the person behind them into whose knees/laptop/book/lunch it will crash? As legroom continues to shrink in the cheap seats at the back of the bus, it appears to be taking on an almost life-or-death level of importance.
Which makes me think, what would Shakespeare have had to say about it? In a mangling of the immortal words of his sweet prince Hamlet, I think it would be something along the lines of (apologies to the Bard):
To recline, or not to recline—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slams and spilled drinks of outrageous fortune
Or to take Knee Defenders to armrests against a sea of recliners
And by opposing end them. To recline, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The knee-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That economy class is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To recline, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of the recliner what dreams may come
When we have Sominex’d off this infernal plane,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long a journey.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of frustrated flight attendants
Th' kicking toddler's wrong, the drunken man in row 32's rant
The pangs of despised chatty neighbors, the flight's delay,
The insolence of the $8 sandwich, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' cramped space takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a few degrees of recline? Who would the passenger bear,
To grunt and sweat throughout a weary flight,
But that the thought of something after landing,
The undiscovered conference, from whose ballroom
No traveller returns unchanged, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear remaining upright
Than recline and dream a reaction to our PowerPoint that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought of others,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their hands drop from the button
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,
The fair passenger!—Recliner, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
Update: I just read this funny-sad-scary peek into the future on Wired--a future in which 2014 could be consider the "golden age of flying": Tall People Won't Have to Endure Reclining Airline Seats in the Future.
So, are you a recliner or do you keep your seatback in its full upright position? Please let me know in a comment below or e-mail me.