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Wednesday 22 January 2020
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Commentary

The right to recline

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A newly-profitable Garvin Medera-led Caribbean Airlines is going the way of the North American carriers.

CAL used to compete by providing what other carriers didn’t: two free bags, then one; a free meal, now something so stingily inedible you wonder why they bothered. And now what you used to take for granted as coming with every ticket is being taken away to be sold back to you as a “premium.”

Legroom.

The principle is quite straightforward. Spend money to reconfigure your airline cabins so the seats in the back are squished more uncomfortably together, so you can create another tier of privilege in economy with slightly more space from the seat in front. And market it to people.

When I set up my phone newsfeed I think I clicked the travel option. So I’m shown all sorts of stories aimed at people who fly in the front of the plane, comparing increasingly competitive features airlines offer as part of a business-class ticket. Unlike CAL’s 737s, where a wider seat, better and more food and drink – and attention – is what you get, the standard seat in many airlines’ business-class cabins is now a cubbylike enclosure with a monitor and recliner.

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In “not premium” economy, meanwhile, seats are actually installed so close that if the passenger in front you reclines fully, it’s impossible to fully open your laptop on your tray table.

Passengers with long legs can take it in the knee when the seat in front comes swiftly and relentlessly back. One company sells a $150 gadget that attaches to the tray table’s hinges and supposedly prevents your fellow passenger from exercising the right to recline into the space you thought you had paid for in your ticket fee.

Last month my newsfeed pulled up a new round of chatter about the reality that airlines have turned the rear of their cabins into “steerage,” herding us into inhumanely cramped spaces. What should passenger travel “etiquette” be, bloggers and columnists argued, in what Katherine Fan called “one of the greatest debates in modern air travel.”

I recalled my own experience, on an ageing British Airways 747 from Miami to London. With no seatpower, a really bad entertainment selection and even worse meal, my one comfort, after the seat in front pushed the cover of my dying laptop to an acute angle, was to shut it, push back and try to sleep.

As I dozed off, the elderly Jamaican couple seated behind me, having contemplated how to respond to that surprise and finally decided how to, woke me by thumping on the back of the seat, grumbling loudly to each other, like formerly enslaved peoples do, about the impossibility and unthinkability of the position of the seat. They couldn’t even leave their seats to get to the aisle in the space left between their armrest and my seatback.

And they were right. So I showed them the trick of finding the hidden button that releases the aisle armrest up: Just scoot out horizontally!

That wasn’t comfort enough. I wanted to counsel them that avoiding the egregiousness of the economy seat’s recline was simply a matter of upgrading, that the economic choice to fly standard economy came, like boarding last, the bad food and movies, with the price of the ticket. I imagined them the next day, dozing off knitting, gardening or watching TV in a Council Estates flat, while I had to struggle, sleep-deprived, straight from the airport to a business meeting.

What was fair?

Some commentators disagree pointedly. In a cabin of sardines, they argue, it’s only good citizenship to be kind to the passenger behind you. Flying etiquette involves restraint from doing a wide range of unregulated things you and your body can in the confines of a cabin – including not reclining fully. It’s just uncivil.

“Seat reclining is one of the most irritating, inconvenient, self-indulgent habits. Period,” one commentator was quoted. “Reclining your airline seat is unacceptable…It’s rude – and it’s wrong. There’s no space to recline,” Christopher Elliott wrote in a USA Today column titled “Do you have the right to recline your airline airplane seat? No, and here’s why.” He even suggested pilots should “immediately stop using the phrase ‘Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.’”

But that’s the thing itself. It means that passengers who’ve paid good money to fly should accommodate ourselves to the greed of airlines, and the denial that even their own staff engage in in fuelling the myth that relaxed sitting-back is an option and not a conflict trigger.

No! We in the Caribbean are too much in the habit of accommodating injustice and advantage.

Recline fully. Provoke the discomfort. Let airline personnel understand the utter ridiculousness of what is going on with inches. “Any space available to you as an economy-class traveller is yours to claim,” Fan argues.

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