Coach Class Musical Chairs This week with the Ethicist: What can you do if you're stuck in coach class and the guy in front of you puts his seat back so far that his head ends up in your airline meal? Randy Cohen has some suggestions.
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Coach Class Musical Chairs

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Coach Class Musical Chairs

Coach Class Musical Chairs

Coach Class Musical Chairs

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This week with the Ethicist: What can you do if you're stuck in coach class and the guy in front of you puts his seat back so far that his head ends up in your airline meal? Randy Cohen has some suggestions.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

`Holiday travel.' Don't those words just make you kind of shudder? Jam-packed airplanes, screaming babies in coach class and, of course, the guy in front of you who puts his seat back so far his head is practically in your lap. This week, with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll look at a novel solution to travel troubles. Randy joins us now from our New York bureau.

Hello, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (The New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie. Thanks for that holiday gloom. You know, I was feeling pretty bad already around New Year's, but you've plunged me right over into despair. Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

And we also have listener Steve Hayman(ph) on the line from Toronto. Hi, Steve.

Mr. STEVE HAYMAN (Listener): Hello, Debbie. Hello, Randy.

ELLIOTT: I understand you're really bothered by cramped airline seats.

Mr. HAYMAN: Yes. Yes, I am. I'm a fairly large guy, and air travel is uncomfortable enough at the best of times. But if the person in front of me decides to recline their seat, then it's even worse. Their seat bangs into my knees, I can't read and I can't use my computer. And I've decided that I am personally an anti-reclininst. I think you should not recline your seat if there's someone sitting behind you out of common courtesy. But I have some colleagues, who I thought were intelligent and thoughtful people until this particular topic came up, who think that because the seat can recline that they have some inalienable right to recline it all the way, anytime, whenever they want, and that if I don't like it, I should just recline my own seat.

I'm thinking of buying a gadget called a Knee Defender, which is a little hunk of plastic that prevents the seat ahead of you from reclining. If they have the right to recline, do I have the right to block their seat from reclining? I hope we can straighten out the worldwide brotherhood of air travelers here.

ELLIOTT: Now the Knee Defender sounds a bit extreme. Don't you feel a little guilty about interfering with somebody else's seat?

Mr. HAYMAN: I haven't had the nerve to purchase this device yet, but I'm strongly tempted.

ELLIOTT: Now have you ever tried asking the person in front of you, you know, `Hey, look, I have really long legs. Can you please not put your seat back?'

Mr. HAYMAN: I have occasionally tried. I wish I didn't have to. I wish the pilot would just get on the speaker and tell everyone that it's a full flight and, out of common decency for your fellow travelers, please don't recline your seat. It's really the airlines' fault for jamming the seats so close together in the first place.

ELLIOTT: So, Randy, what's your advice? Is it every man for himself in the air?

Mr. COHEN: No. I believe Steve has summarized the issue succinctly and lucidly; that just because something is physically possible doesn't make it ethically acceptable, like--oh, I don't know--wearing a toupee. I mean, we can do it, but should we?

It is an issue of courtesy, that it's not proper to let your happiness come at someone else's expense. So if you want to recline and there's someone behind you, you should get their OK, but they should not withhold it unreasonably. And as Steve says, the airlines are, indeed, the villains here. You know, has anyone ever asked you `How was your flight?' like, the answer could be good? You know--I mean, I guess the answer can be, `No one was seriously injured.' That would be good.

It would be also nice, if you're having trouble with someone in front of you, you might ask the stewardess to intervene, that the stewardess has a kind of moral authority--what with the uniform and all--that the stewardess can ask a passenger to do something that another passenger can't request.

ELLIOTT: Now what do you think about this Knee Defender? Am I allowed to get these things that prevent your seat from reclining?

Mr. COHEN: Well, it's interesting, isn't it, that air travel is so vile, so subhuman, that this entire industry of devices to counter its degradations has emerged. There's this device that Steve's described; there are noise-reducing headphones so you don't have to hear the inane prattle of the person you're wedged in with. And my favorite--even better than the Knee Defender--for me--we each have our crutch, and this is mine. There's a little gizmo called TV-B-Gone. It's a tiny remote control that fits on your key chain and it turns off any TV anywhere. It will turn off the CNN in the waiting room. TV-B-Gone lets you do this and lets you do it in a non-confrontational way; no one will know you're doing it. And the knee device seems a little more aggressive, so I object to it not on ethical grounds, but on likely-to-promote-a-fistfight grounds.

ELLIOTT: So, Steve, when's your next flight?

Mr. HAYMAN: I'll be flying in January. I will take this all under advisement and try to keep the turmoil in the air to a minimum.

Mr. COHEN: Can I had one other thing? Full disclosure. I took up a question similar to this in the first year of the column--and it's reprinted in my book--and I got it wrong. Steve hinted at--the way his friends analyzed this as a question of property rights, that it's your seat. Because you bought a seat that can tilt back, that trumps the kind of air space rights of the person behind you. And I went along with that argument; I thought you have the right to recline your seat. And I was wrong. I just--I should confess this because you'll only hear about it on the street that I got it wrong in the book. And Steve has helped me reason through it more lucidly now.

ELLIOTT: Steve Hayman in Toronto, thanks for joining us.

Mr. HAYMAN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: I hope your holiday travels will go smoothly.

If you'd like Randy to smooth out your ethical dilemmas, drop us a line. Go to our Web site,, click on `Contact us' and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Please put the word `ethics' in the subject line, and be sure to include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, thanks as always.

Mr. COHEN: Happy new year, Debbie.

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