Values & Capitalism is now AEI’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. Click here to learn more about our mission and new name.

The Reclining of America

Several flights have been diverted in the past month due to fights over the reclining of seats. During the most recent incident, a woman on a flight from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach became irate after the passenger in front of her attempted to recline. The woman demanded that the plane land immediately, and ultimately, the flight’s captain diverted to Jacksonville International Airport where police removed the woman from the plane.

Similarly, on an August 24 United Airlines flight, an altercation erupted over a passenger’s use of the Knee Defender, a device that prevents the forward-seated passenger from reclining. The crew instructed a businessman to remove his deployed Knee Defender after the woman in front of him complained that she could not recline her seat. When the man complied, the woman slammed her seat backwards, nearly damaging the man’s computer sitting on the tray table. The man then shoved the Knee Defender back into place, prompting the woman to douse him with her drink. United diverted the flight, which cost the airline approximately $6,000 per hour.

[pq]Limited airline legroom offers the perfect opportunity to learn a lesson about ordered liberty.[/pq]

Some airlines have handled the legroom issue by installing seats that do not recline, or ones that “pre-cline,” to use the new marketing lingo. In any event, the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that it would not ban devices such as Knee Defenders, and individual airline carriers should continue to set the rules of reclining.

These outbursts at 35,000 feet and the FAA decision have generated a number of opinion pieces, some humorous, about the “right” to recline. These posts reminded me of the following from Nick Schulz’s 2006 denunciation of the auto-flush toilet (appropriately titled The Crappiest Invention of All Time): “The auto-flush toilet violates two basic rules of technology adoption: Never replace a technology with an inferior technology; and never confiscate power from your users.”

Although perhaps not as evil as auto-flush toilets, aren’t pre-clining seats—which come with the promise of making everyone equal if only in their discomfort—similarly demeaning in robbing their users of choice?

Imagine a sparsely populated Tuesday cross-country flight in a pre-clining seat. Wouldn’t you like to get a few hours of sleep without feeling as though you are test-driving quasi-reclined catapults for P.T. Barnum? I would.  It’s hard enough for us to sleep knowing we’ve paid good money for a disembodied voice to hurdle us through the stratosphere at 500 miles per hour, so why take away the last shred of control we have on commercial airlines—our ability to recline when the circumstances permit?

For those who argue that choice must be taken away because Americans don’t understand why his or her individual needs and wants cannot trump everyone else’s at all times, I think limited airline legroom offers the perfect opportunity to learn a lesson about ordered liberty.

While I don’t want airlines to take away reclining seats, I also think it would be helpful to stop treating the ability to recline on commercial flights like the holy grail of natural rights. Sure, we may have paid for the “right” to recline, but that doesn’t mean we should exercise that right indiscriminately.