Seatback Problems

You rush to the airport, elbow your way through security and destroy an overpriced Bloody Mary. You waddle down the square people pipe, peer at the folks dozing in the thrones of first class, shove your things into their designated shoving zones … and PLOP into your economy seat. 



Cruising altitude. 

And finally… Read a book. Write some emails. Watch a movie. Relax.

Until the seat before you fully reclines, thus occupying most usable space in an already minuscule territory.

There’s a quiet war waged on airplanes… between those who recline their seats and those into whom said seats are reclined. There’s often, also, a moral battle fought within the later. After being reclined upon do you remain upright? Or give in to the tilt, distancing yourself from an encroaching seatback, but passing annoyance aft, and through some potential chain reaction down the whole length of economy, like so many seat-belted dominoes?

Kudos to those who engage: asking if its ok to recline, asking if a reclined seat could return ever so slightly … but often it’s easier–in some self punishing sort of way–to get and remain frustrated with your fellow passengers. For not being considerate of your space, or for not understanding that sometimes one must tilt, for medical, among other, reasons. 

Who… is at fault here? The tilter, for their bravado? The tilted-at, for their sensitivity? 

I think it is … neither. 

No passenger deserves blame. The airline does. From the slower service, bumpier, noisier ride, to later boarding, later deplaning and cramped quarters … there is an economic incentive for economy’s unpleasantness – so you’ll pay 50 or 100 bucks for more leg room, or pay a mint for the upper classes. 

Airlines engineer this situation. Perhaps not out of direct desire to see you fume, but nonetheless, in-transit personal space is sacrificed at the altar of profit. Unable as you are to confront the circumstances which result in being seatbacked upon, or kicked into for exercising your airline-given right to recline–circumstances concerning everything from your own schedule and finances to the design and layout of JET CABINS–it’s easier to take issue with … a person and in so doing, give the airline something of a pass.

These problems are … common, I think. Where people stuck in some unfortunate state of affairs have identified one another as adversaries, and not mutually exploited subjects of the same miserable situation they all feel powerless to change. These sorts of problems don’t happen exclusively on planes, but I’ve started thinking of them as … seatback problems.

A Seatback Problem isn’t just two people who should be collaborators finding themselves, instead, at odds – with a seatback problem the outside forces which have pit people against one another … COULD, conceivably, ameliorate the tension but they DON’T. Often because they don’t have to, and don’t want to.

Other seatback problems include the rivalry between drivers of rideshare services, or between rideshare and municipal taxi drivers, who are made competitors within the exploitative gig and sharing economies. Between students and adjunct faculty, who require each other’s time but are afforded little of it by the institution which schedules, or pays for that time. Between customers told no coffee order is too complex and the baristas who must make those orders to demanding specification, as quickly as possible.

The factors of these situations which cause conflict can seem endemic. We can see hostility as being “natural” or “expected” given some set of circumstances, when in fact its presence is designed for or arbitrary… and viewed as simply “how things are”. So the situation  persists.

To what possible detriment, though?! You may ask. Surely we’re not so fragile that low level conflict is anything beyond a minor annoyance. And … maybe you’re right. But I think common, repeated conflict with fellow citizens can reach a saturation point which, if not unhealthy, certainly isn’t … good? I don’t mean to suggest we all need to like one another, just that I’d rather not view day to day activities as beset with difficulty because … everyone sucks, when its because many of those day to day activities generate difficulty even if often… they don’t have to. 

It’s hard to conceive of a world where there are no bothersome people; it’s much easier to conceive of a world where there are two more inches of legroom in economy.

But … the path from conceiving of that world to its actuality is neither obvious nor direct. Solving seatback problems requires the seemingly impossible: forgiving, and ideally working with, the source of your frustrations–the seat tilter, the seat kicker, the barista who confused soy milk with milk … milk. 

And working with them against the forces which have placed you in a Thunderdome of Emotions. Do we note which airlines pack passengers less like sardines, and fly those airlines most? Do we communicate our collective disappointment with the most cramped quarters? Do taxi drivers welcome rideshare drivers into their union? Do adjuncts collectively lobby for more and more paid time to assist their students outside of class?

The nature of the these problems is such that I can’t hand down a solution. The solution must arise from the bottom up–involving directly the people who are effected, and pit unnecessarily against one another–not the top down–from another, likewise distant authority. 

The first step in solving them, I think, is recognizing seatback problems, and their circumstances, for what they are, and in the process, circumventing that interpersonal frustration that’s best reserved for, and aimed at, The Powers That Be.