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Steerage Would Be An Improvement

interior cabin of Allegiant Air's McDonnell Douglas MD-82.
photo by Cory W. Watts

Pay close attention, fellow flyers: I am about to tell you the secret to finding the most comfortable economy-class seat in U.S. domestic air travel.

It is the seat directly behind wherever I happen to be sitting.

You want to sit behind me whenever possible, and you want to avoid sitting behind Wendi Williams at practically any cost. Especially at the cost of a typical airline coach seat.

Williams is the woman who recently made herself famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) by reclining her seat. Williams was seated in the next-to-last row of an American Eagle regional jet on a recent flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, North Carolina. According to Williams, the man in the seat behind her asked her to move her seat forward while he ate, which she did – for about 10 minutes, by which time she determined he was finished. So she reclined again.

The man behind her grew frustrated and began pushing – or, in her words, punching – her seat. When Williams asked a flight attendant to intervene, she said the employee was unsympathetic. Williams resorted to recording a video of the disgruntled passenger behind her and posted it online. She became the subject of an internet debate as that video went viral and the news media jumped onto the story.

Williams has said that she plans to press charges against the passenger seated behind her. She has also said she will sue American Airlines due to a public statement from the airline that she made the man spill his drink, which she denies. (She claims the statement is defamatory.) Williams is apparently hoping to get a legal settlement for her pain and suffering, the cause of which is not obvious to my eyes from the video she posted. But we like to say justice is blind, especially when lawyers working on contingency fees are involved. I suppose she could get the settlement she’s after for the incident she characterized as an assault.

Here’s the thing: I fly a lot, usually in coach. Mostly I fly in coach on JetBlue, which offers at least 33 to 34 inches of space (known as “pitch”) between coach seats. This is considered generous by today's standards. I seldom recline my seat at all, and when I do, it is usually by no more than an inch or so – just enough to keep my chin from crashing into my chest when I doze off, which is typically before the wheels leave the ground.

So when it comes to choosing the passenger behind whom you wish to sit, you definitely want me rather than Wendi Williams.

Don’t assume I believe that Williams was outside her rights in reclining her seat. It was her seat, at least for the duration of that flight. She paid for it. The airline gave that seat a button that permits it to recline, and Williams had control of the button. She did not have control of the wing flaps or the rudder, stuff the airline thinks she should not touch. They gave her a button and a seatback and she put both of them to permitted use. I may disagree with the airline’s choice, but Williams had a right to the control it gave her.

In response to the controversy surrounding Williams’ video, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian affirmed that passengers had the right to recline. “I think the proper thing to do is if you’re going to recline into somebody that you ask if it’s okay first and then you do it,” Bastian told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Of course Williams could have been more solicitous of the poor schlep sitting behind her in a chair that could not recline because it was in the last row. But she wasn’t. The poor schlep certainly should have chosen a less physical and intrusive way of venting his frustration. But you don’t have to prove you’re a nice person to travel by plane (so far, at least).

A few years ago some flyers experimented with a gadget called the “Knee Defender” that prevented the seat in front of them from reclining. The airlines cracked down on that. So far, they have not cracked down on seat-punching.

I like to compare airline economy class to the steerage cabins that carried poor immigrants to this country around the turn of the 20th century. However, in researching this post, I discovered that this comparison is incorrect. Steerage passengers enjoyed accommodations that were positively luxurious compared to the 30 inches of pitch and the 18 or 19 inches of seat width that would have been available in coach on that American Eagle Embraer 175 aircraft.

In fact, the Passenger Act of 1882 provided that steerage passengers were entitled to sleeping berths at least two feet wide and six feet long. Today we call such luxury a “lie-flat seat.” It is available only in business and first class airline cabins that cost far more than economy travel.

The same statute required that passengers be fed “good, wholesome and proper food.” On most domestic flights today, food is a luxury, to be sold to or withheld from economy passengers at the airline’s discretion. In fact, just about the only congressional demand of airlines today is that they deliver their passengers alive to their final destinations.

Some other features of steamship steerage class were the separation of single men (who were placed at the front of the ship, conveniently next to the bar) and single women (who were berthed aft, with matrons assigned to watch out for them). Families bunked in between to keep the two groups separate. In a world of seats that are sometimes less than 18 inches wide and not always even 30 inches apart, I’ll bet there are many women who have wished the large, unfamiliar men sitting next to them would be flown in another cabin, if not another plane. I have even wished it myself, in the moments when I was not asleep. Congress also said that families in steerage should not be separated without their consent. This is more than we can say for families flying in economy class on many airlines.

The bygone days of luxury travel in steerage on a long ocean voyage are not coming back. Our journeys these days are shorter, if less pleasant. We will have to make the best of them. So let’s try to be kind to one another. If we can’t do that, then let’s just take a nap to make the time go faster. You really don’t need a seat that reclines very far to be able to rest your head.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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