Gail Collins: Air travelers must realize the down side of reclining
I am trying to imagine how our national leaders would react if they got caught in a reclining airplane seat crisis. You know what I mean. If they were flying to some important meeting, and the person in front flopped back into their personal space, crunching a laptop or bruising a knee. Obviously, this doesn't happen to real national leaders. Their airplanes have rooms, for heaven's sake. But if it did.
President Barack Obama would not yell. He would sigh a deep sigh. The atmosphere around him would grow very cold. More sighs. Time passes very slowly.
John Boehner might yell, but he would not actually expect anyone to pay any attention.
It is possible that Hillary Clinton would not know the seat in front of her had reclined because she is famous for being able to fall asleep at will. Nancy Pelosi's staff says she, too, is often conked out before the plane takes off. Perhaps this is a woman thing, but, speaking as a woman, I doubt it.
Bill Clinton might simply regard the reclinee as a new listener who had entered his orbit unexpectedly and begin recounting a very long story.
Joe Biden: "Now that you're in my lap, would you mind taking a selfie?"
The reclining-seat debate has become a bit of an aviation crisis. We had three flight diversions in eight days recently because of it. The latest occurred this week when an elderly woman who was knitting dropped her seat back, bonking the woman sitting behind her, who had been resting her head on a tray table. You could see why the victim would be irked, but demanding that the pilot "put this plane down now" seems a bit much.
A flight from Miami to Paris wound up on the ground in Boston after a Frenchman took offense at being reclined upon. And then, of course, there was the United Airlines passenger who locked the seat in front of him into an upright position with a Knee Defender and got a glass of soda thrown in his face. Two weeks ago, most of us had no idea something called a Knee Defender existed, and now, we have intense opinions about whether it should be legal.
"I'd never heard of that product, but I think it's a crazy idea," said Rep. Rick Larsen, of Washington.
Larsen is the lead Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee.
I think Washington needs to look into this. Americans want to know more about the airline recliner options, mainly because, at the moment, this is the only current affair that is not incredibly frightening or depressing. It could be the 2014 version of a feel-good public hearing. Yet no.
"While he's had his fair share of bruised knees and close quarters with his fellow passengers, Congressman LoBiondo does not believe this is an issue for Congress to tackle," said a spokesman for Rep. Frank LoBiondo, the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.
Well, maybe they'll have a hearing about the theft of the naked movie star pictures.
Members of Congress do sometimes fly coach. The ones who've been around for a while often move into perpetual upgrade territory because they've been on so many airplanes they reach frequent-flier nirvana, like George Clooney in that movie. But most have their coach moments. Larsen says he definitely does not yell when somebody reclines into his space.
"In my job, I don't want to be the person who makes someone else mad on an airplane," he said. "No way."
We all know, of course, that air travel is extremely uncomfortable. That your average economy seat is now 17 inches wide and has about 31 inches of space before the one in front. That the flights are frequently jam-packed, that the air terminals generally have the ambience of a North Korean hotel and the comfort of a mammogram.
Nobody expects a tasty snack or space in the overhead compartment. The reclining seat is the last remaining marketing symbol of travel comfort.
"'Sit back, relax and enjoy your flight' — I've been hearing that since I started doing this work," said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
Maybe the airlines should just admit the truth. Instead of telling the benumbed passengers about their flotation devices, maybe the announcer could warn them, at the beginning of their flight, that reclining their chairs will probably create discomfort for the person behind them and that they might want, at minimum, to go back gradually so the poor soul behind has a moment to adjust to the inevitable.
"We've not taken a position on that," said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for an airline trade association.
Passengers might behave better if they were encouraged to abandon hope. Instead of "Welcome Aboard," the airlines could leave a message in the seat pockets: "Face it: You're going to be uncomfortable and wide-awake for the next several hours."
Unless you're Nancy Pelosi.