There’s an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine are about to board a plane and the gate attendant tells them she can bump one of them into first class. Jerry immediately takes the offer, explaining to Elaine that he’s flown in first class before — she hasn’t — so he knows what he would be missing. Sure enough, Jerry spends the flight sipping champagne with a super-model while Elaine sits in a middle seat squeezed between two fat guys who fall asleep on her.
Nowadays, that episode is less comedy and more documentary.
I thought about Jerry and Elaine when I heard about the Great Reclining Seat Wars that have broken out over American skies. The war has pitted those who want to recline their airplane seats against those who have purchased a nifty device called the “Knee Defender,” which effectively blocks the person in front of you from relaxing into your lap.
Fights have broken out over the Knee Defender and beverages have been tossed in anger. Flights have even been diverted because reclining passengers and their nonreclining antagonists couldn’t share space in peace.
Like that Seinfeld episode, this is all pretty funny until you start to think about it some more. Then it isn’t.
Anyone who has flown a U.S. carrier on a domestic flight knows that the experience has become increasingly awful. Shabby planes, miserly service, and, of course, less and less space. Only toddlers, who on American flights must pay full-fare, have enough room to sit. The experience is even more infuriating if you compare it with flying on a European airline. The difference between flying Lufthansa or LOT vs. United or USAir is like the difference between eating prosciutto and Spam.
But life for those in the front of the plane has gotten ever more luxurious, even while those of us in steerage class have been defending our knees and throwing drinks at each other. Business and first-class flying has become more and more an extension of the concierge economy of the 1 percent, only with wings. Food, drink, their own wait-staff, exclusive bathrooms, and even expedited security — because terrorists only fly coach, apparently. Meanwhile, I fully expect airlines to install coin-operated toilets soon for those of us in the back of the air-bus.
Surely, though, those people up front deserve all those perks, right? They paid for those tickets and the first rule of economics is: You get what you pay for.
Here’s where it gets more maddening, however. Some number of those flyers up front are flying on business. Their companies are paying for those flights. Those companies, in turn, get to deduct travel expenses from their taxes. That’s right: first-class, publicly subsidized.
That’s why these outbursts of anger on recent flights perfectly encapsulate our culture of economic inequality. The leg-room at the front of the plane has come at the expense of the rest of us, and in two directions. First, since the planes themselves haven’t changed dimensions, the redesigned plushness for the flying 1 percent has been created by squeezing the knees of the rest of us. And second, when corporations write off this travel on their taxes, the rest of us get stiffed.
Yet, in scenes that Karl Marx would have enjoyed, the flying proletariat have turned on each other, fighting over what few inches of space and what few ounces of our dignity remain. And while we skirmish over personal space, the folks in the single-digit rows stretch their legs out a bit more.
I’d like to propose a truce between the knee defenders and the knee bangers. You’re both right. It is more comfortable to recline that seat and it provides a modicum of relaxation. It is also rude to the person behind you, physically uncomfortable and even claustrophobic. I don’t need to get any closer to you than I already am.
Instead, let’s channel that anger toward the airlines themselves. They created the Big Squeeze. They put pampering the few above providing the rest of us with a handful of pretzels.
Every so often you hear about a local judge sentencing a slumlord who has broken some law to a month living in one of his own rat-infested firetraps. Let’s have Congress do something similar: For one month every year, U.S. airline executives should be forced to fly with the rest of us. In the back row by the bathroom. In that middle seat between the two dozing fat guys.
Steven Conn is a professor of history at Ohio State University and the author of “Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.” He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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