Space austerity: plane seats and change rooms needn't bring out our worst

Josephine Tovey
Composite: Getty

If you don’t normally subscribe to the idea that hell is other people, you might after a long-haul flight in economy class. Seats reclined up against your face, legs manspreading into your tiny space and – my personal misanthropy fuel – a stranger’s bare feet poking in between the seats.

Thanks to the internet and the ubiquity of air rage videos on social media, you don’t even have to be flying to be drawn into this maddening coupling of deep discomfort and pure intimacy with strangers.

In the latest one, a woman sits with her seat reclined on an American Airlines flight, filming over her shoulder. Behind her, a man slouches in his chair, with one hand up, punching the back of her seat incessantly.

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The video reignited the extremely tedious and never-ending debate about reclining your seat. As with most things, I was on the writer Roxane Gay’s side: “Reclining is impolite but punching someone’s seat over and over and over … That is even more wrong.”

Every time one of these videos surfaces, it’s hard not to think we should save plenty of ire for the airlines themselves. I make no excuses for the seat-punching jerk, but there is an absurdity to endlessly debating the etiquette here without asking – maybe it’s also the seats, and the companies who profit from selling them so close together, that are the problem?

Air travel is getting more uncomfortable: people are getting bigger but seats are generally getting smaller and closer together. The flight attendants’ union in the US last year warned this cramming was a safety issue, increasing conflict while also running the risk of making emergency evacuations slower. The trade-off for cheaper air travel over the past few decades has been a relentless pursuit of efficiency of space, which literally pits us against each other.

But it’s not just air travel. So many spaces where we interact with each other in the era of late capitalism bring out our absolute worst and threaten to make cranks of us all.

We jostle and squabble in queues at underfunded public services. We grow irritated stuck on buses behind streams of slow cyclists in cities that have failed to build proper bike lanes. We find ourselves cursing into strangers’ armpits or tussling with their backpacks on overcrowded public transport.

I always feel like I’ve entered a scene from The Purge anytime I’ve shopped at Zara at lunchtime. The ratio of customers to change rooms in their stores always seems to be 7,000:1, leading women to try on what they can in the aisles – strewing clothes around the store, clogging the floors and fighting for mirror space. At sale time, you can feel like you need body armour.

At the core of all these issues is usually bad design and organisation, with profit, private interests and cost-cutting, not people, in mind. In spaces where human needs seem like an afterthought, it’s little wonder our empathy diminishes.

And it’s a burden felt by some more than others. These are largely situations some pay their way out of – there aren’t too many air rage videos coming out of first class, or fights over mirror space in Miu Miu. You’re less likely to think hell is other people when you don’t have to be squeezed up against them constantly as you move through the world.

In a rankling epilogue to last week’s viral video, the CEO of Delta airlines dispensed some etiquette advice about reclining: “I think that the proper thing to do is if you’re going to recline into somebody, that you ask if it’s OK first,” he said. Of course he would – the forbearance of passengers even under increasingly undignified circumstances is integral to the business model at this point.

But trying to hold on to our humanity in these vexing situations is more than worth it for us. Firstly, obviously, because it makes life more bearable. But secondly, because it’s camaraderie and seeing people around you as real, whole people, not just competitors for space, or objects to be wedged in place, that is the best antidote to the ruthless ideology shaping these experiences in the first place.

Related: There's a huge fight over reclining your airline seat. Is capitalism to blame?

On one trip home to Australia from the US a few years back I found myself wondering what I had done wrong in a past life to be sat next to bodybuilder – a giant of a man with arms and legs like felled logs that tumbled over the armrests and out from the bounds of his seat. He started chatting to me – loudly – as soon as I sat down, in his thick New Jersey accent, as he wiped beads of sweat from his brow.

I quickly realised the poor guy was overcome with nerves. He confessed to me he’d never actually been on a plane before, but he had to, because he’d fallen for an Australian girl. She was from Queensland, a dancer on a cruise ship. He showed me pictures of her on his phone (“bewdiful, right?”). She wanted him to come meet her family. He was crazy about her. So he booked a damn flight.

All my irritation melted away and I found myself both getting very invested in this transpacific love story and taking on the role of flight doula. I asked him questions about toning my glutes I would literally never put in to practise to keep him talking, while sharing all the usual soothing platitudes about the relative safety of air travel. I also gave him permission to squeeze my arm if he got scared. For the next 14 hours I had almost no legroom, no armrest and no sleep, with a big stranger’s hand gripping my forearm intermittently. And I wasn’t the least bit mad.