At long last, you are headed home, destined to see family over the holidays. The plane reaches cruising altitude. The seatbelt sign flicks off, and passengers leap up, hoping to make their way to the lavatory before drink carts block the aisles. Ready for a snooze, you try to lean back, but your chair won't budge. Before cursing the airline, take a peek at the tray-table behind you. You might be amazed to find your neighbour has clamped two grey plastic gadgets to its arms, wedging your seat in place and preventing you from leaning back.
Known as "The Knee Defender," this $15 device has been selling like hot cakes since its introduction a few months ago, and has re-ignited a furious debate about the ethics, rights and protocol of airline chair reclining.
Online discussion boards are overflowing with chest puffing and posturing; both it's-my-right-to-recline and stay-outa-my-personal-space proponents vying to out-shout the other. The UK Civil Aviation authority wants the Knee Defender banned for safety reasons. Surprisingly, the FAA has deemed that the device may be used (except during taxi, takeoff and landing) but many airlines - including Northwest, American, and Continental - have already moved to ban the miserable and indefensible device.
A little civility, you'd think, would go further than pre-emptively blocking your neighbour's ability to lean back. But civility in air travel has been in a steady decline, attributable to smaller seats, longer lines, too much carry-on, too little space, confusing regulations, indifferent security agents and other indignities that have steadily sucked every last ounce of pleasure from flight. Modern airport procedures invoke a constant, unsettling sense of being herded like cattle. Under such duress, many passengers survive by creating a disengaged, isolated bubble; no eye contact, ear buds in, get on and off as quickly as possible.
Which is sad. Twenty years ago it was common to talk to the person sitting beside you. Or at least acknowledge them. Today we can fly across Canada - a journey that one generation ago would have been a major experience, and a century ago could have taken two arduous months - without even saying hello to the person banging our elbows.
It was not unknown, in the days of exuberant travel, for spontaneous applause to ripple through the cabin when the plane touched down. Today, when the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, mayhem ensues. Phones are turned on, passengers crawl over each other to retrieve luggage, and some start sneaking forward.
Forget the Knee Defender; what air travellers need is a manifesto akin to the "Surfer's Code." These simple, unwritten, but universally understood laws of self-regulation help ease disputes at breaks around the globe, and they go something like this: Don't snake (i.e. steal) waves. Priority goes to the person nearest the peak. Never ditch your board. Don't get in the way. Always communicate. Share the water, your knowledge, and your stoke. Give respect to gain respect. We are lucky to be surfers.
Breaking the Surfer's Code may result in: a bloody nose, slashed tires, or intimidation from a goon with face tattoos. But on the upside, violations are rare.
A simple Air Travellers' Code could look like this:
· Don't Snake (ahead in line). Sneaking forward doesn't speed things up. Board and exit by row number. Don't cheat or feign ignorance. If you are in Row 20, let the people in row 19 retrieve their bags and leave before you. Also, avoid stampedes.
· Go easy on overhead luggage: If you can't carry it, it's not carry-on.
· Treat your chair gently: Don't jump into it, or tackle it like a linebacker when reclining. Think of the knees and laptops behind you.
· Treat the chair in front of you gently: Avoid kicking or kneeing the seat back. And do not yank on the seat ahead when standing up. Be careful of ponytails.
· The fasten-seatbelt sign doesn't mean jump: Not sure why this has to be said, but there is one in every crowd.
· Don't crowd the luggage carousel: Step forward when your bag appears. Simple. (And hey, airport management, what about a little yellow line around the carousel, so folks unable to visually estimate three feet have some guidance?)
· Respect fellow passengers: Smile, say hello to the person beside you. (But don't be lecherous. And take a hint. If your neighbour has earphones in, or is reading, they don't want to hear your life story.)
And finally, remember that flight is a glorious privilege. When the plane engines roar, and the great metal bird begins to hurtle down the runway, fold your newspaper, and ponder for just a moment, the miracle that you are a part of.
Special to The Globe and Mail