What’s up with airplane seats lately?

Is it just me, or are airline seats not quite what they used to be? Here I am, on board a flight to Chicago, and like a good citizen, I make sure my seat back is in its full, upright position when the plane is taking off and landing.

What’s more, as a relatively big guy, I know that reclining at any time can be quite uncomfortable for the person sitting behind you. Not only does it often make the tray table completely useless, it reduces knee-room to near-zero. It can make a tolerable trip into a three-hour exercise in mental discipline. Depending on the flight, sitting behind a reclined seat can be as uncomfortable as a Guantanamo-style stress position.

And maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but reclining in a coach airline seat isn’t actually any more comfortable than sitting upright. The chair only leans back a couple inches — just enough that it’s a strain on your abdomen to read a book or work on a laptop, but not enough for a real rest. Given the tremendous discomfort reclining inflicts on fellow passengers, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I make every effort not to recline.

But that’s becoming more and more difficult, because the “recline” mechanism in nearly every airline seat I’ve occupied in the last few years has been broken. Sure, you can bring the seat upright, but any time you try to sit back in your seat, the chair begins a slow, inexorable crawl to the reclined position, much to the discomfort and annoyance of the person sitting behind you. My seat’s doing it right now. On previous flights, I’ve even had flight attendants chew me out for not putting the seat in the proper position for take-off and landing.

No, I want to say, I’m not one of those passive-aggressive nimrods who doesn’t think the directions apply to me. I’m not a clueless first-time flier who can’t figure out how the seat works. It’s your damned plane that’s borked, not me!

But of course I say none of that, because I don’t want to sound like a holier-than-thou “road warrior” either. I also don’t ask for the whole can of soda when you’re handing out drinks, and I don’t wheel and deal with other passengers to get an aisle seat closer to the front of the plane.

So what is it about plane seats? Can’t the airlines afford to keep the ordinary, everyday “recline” mechanism functional? Apparently not. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I heard an “airline expert” interviewed on Terry Gross, and he said that airlines were cutting pretty much every nonessential out of their flight service these days. Heck, American says it’s about to start charging $15 apiece for checked luggage. Maybe I should just be excited that United hasn’t yet stooped to that level.

In some ways, the old-fashioned “perks” of air travel like bringing along your things and sitting in functioning seats are beside the point. I say that in all seriousness — really it’s all about the destination. When I was planning this trip, I didn’t say to myself, “I’m looking forward to my flight to Chicago.” I was looking forward to being in Chicago, not getting there. That hasn’t changed much from even the “golden age” of government-regulated air travel.

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