Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy Putting Your Head in Someone Else’s Lap

I previously blogged about how airlines fail to consider the attention consumption consequences of their repeated communications with passengers. I had a great example of this on a flight this weekend. The flight left at 6:20 am, so all of us were pretty groggy. About 1/2 hour into the flight, when I would estimate 2/3 of the passengers were dozing or asleep, the lead flight attendant got on the loudspeaker and said:

“We’re going to begin our beverage service. If you are asleep, we don’t want to disturb you. So if you’re asleep but want a beverage, just put your tray down.”

Gee, thanks for being so considerate of sleeping passengers. However, did it occur that your announcement would wake up many passengers, so most of the people who want to sleep won’t need to rely on the tray-trick? Next time, if you really want to help sleeping passengers continue sleeping, maybe the loudspeaker isn’t the smartest way to declare that intent.

But the announcement that irritates me the most is the “Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight” mantra that virtually every pilot invokes. Passenger response is virtually Pavlovian. When the pilot sends us that friendly wish, several dozen seats on the airplane immediately recline to the max.

I don’t understand why airplane seats are designed to recline at all. Maybe there’s some medical reason. Perhaps consumers demand it, although given the Pavlovian response to the pilot’s well-wishes, I think a lot of passengers don’t really think about it until prompted.

All I know is that passengers get a pretty small volume of space to begin with (maybe 18″ x 20″ x 5 ft), so allowing another passenger to make a couple inch incursion into that space is pretty material. Accordingly, when a passenger reclines his/her seat, it typically triggers a cascade of reclined seats behind that person as each passenger tries to reclaim a few extra inches of volume from the passenger behind them.

If I’m trying to work on my laptop, even reclining my own seat isn’t sufficient. I’ve had times when I simply can’t get the laptop screen open enough to see it. United’s Economy Plus solves this problem somewhat, but it’s still a problem.

My preference would be to eliminate the ability of airplane seats to recline at all. But if that’s too severe, then pilots could and should simply retire the “sit back” mantra/Pavlovian trigger. Or perhaps pilots could modify it to remind people to sit up straight.