Put Me In, Coach!
Much has been said of the miracle that is human flight. “The lure of flying,” wrote Amelia Earhart, “is the lure of beauty”. “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci. A young American pilot, named John Gillespie Magee, Jr., penned a much-quoted poem titled “High Flight” prior to his death in combat at the age of 19. “I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space,” Magee wrote, “put out my hand and touched the face of God.”
Not much has been said of the miracle of flying coach, however. As your average modern commercial flight slips the surly bonds of Earth, you’re more likely to hear bickering than wonderment. Steadily shrinking seat sizes and legroom have caused fierce debates over the expected etiquette in economy. When can you recline your seat? What happens if your next-seat neighbor shows up with a pet? Or worse, a baby? What’s the deal with asking people to swap seats?
Airlines have a hand to play in all this, too. Large companies such as Delta have reduced the width of coach seats by about two inches in the last few years, as well as putting rows roughly three inches closer together. And those few inches make all the difference: a study showed that two-thirds of passengers in 18 inch-wide seats reported sleeping better than they did in the 17 inch-wide ones (for context: the average width of a first-class seat is 21 inches).
And that’s not the worst of it: airlines show no signs of slowing down. One particularly sadistic proposal from Zodiac Seats France in 2015 called for a radical coach redesign that features alternating seat directions in a hexagonal pattern. This would allow airlines to squeeze more seats in, but it would also force passengers to face one another in close quarters for the entire flight. The plan did not fly with the general public. “The horrifying hexagonal seating that means you FACE other passengers,” wrote the Daily Mail. “HEY LOOK THE MOST NIGHTMARISH IDEA FOR PLANE SEATING EVER,” wrote Wired.
Leave it to the French.
Customer satisfaction with United Airlines has plummeted in the past year. Last week, a United flight attendant forced a coach passenger to place her dog in the overhead bin for the entire flight, despite regulations that state that pets should be stowed underneath seats. The dog died during the flight, and United ended up issuing an apology. The airline landed themselves in similar hot water last April when they forcibly dragged passenger David Dao off an overbooked flight. Video footage of the incident was widely shared, and sparked an outcry that led to United reaching a settlement with Dao.
That’s not to say that passengers don’t present their own conflicts, however: the seemingly eternal debates over matters such as seat reclining drones on. The popular polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight ran a 2014 poll that asked what plane passengers thought of kicking back. The results showed a stark divide: 41 per cent of respondents felt that reclining your seat was very or somewhat rude, but another 50 per cent of people said that they recline most of the time. A number of provisional factors do influence people’s opinions: is it an overnight flight? Most think laying back on such a flight is fine. Is the person behind you unusually tall? Then most would decline to recline.
Some felt strongly enough about the issue to actually produce a $21.95 gadget called the Knee Defender, which is designed to prevent even the most earnest recline-believer from having their extra space. It’s not recommended that you use it, though: a man used the gadget on one flight—a United flight—and the obstructed passenger threw a glass of water in the man’s face. The flight ended up having to make an emergency landing to escort both passengers off the plane.
Flying coach has proved to be a miracle in at least one significant way, though: it has dramatically lowered the monetary barriers to international travel. Flight is no longer the privilege of the rich, and the availability of cheap air travel has greatly aided immigration and globalization. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy still have it the best: as economy becomes more hellish, first class has become more opulent.
Whether there’ll be some spatial redistribution between the two classes remains up in the air.