Economy Minus: United Airlines’ Hidden Passenger Section

Dear United Airlines,

My brother and I recently traveled with you from Boston to San Francisco. We bought coach seats on a direct flight. The lack of layover would generally be considered desirable. But, as it turns out, the benefits of direct travel are not absolute.

Coach passengers, or “Economy” passengers, as you like to say, typically enter from the front of an airplane and make their way back through a couple stratas of society before arriving at their seats. (By the way, United, when you and your corporate friends in the travel business began replacing the terms coach and steerage with euphemisms, it served only to give words like value and budget a crummy connotation.) My brother and I entered your plane into the semi-private First-Class section. Between this section and those aft is a curtain, which prevents flight-long scrutiny from lower class passengers. However, upon boarding, the thrifty travelers are afforded ample opportunity to gawk at the First-Classers. This opportunity is not wasted. We all know the experience of trying in vain to peer through the tinted windows of a stretch limousine. Boarding an aircraft effectively allows one to walk straight down the middle of that limo. Unfortunately, they must then continue upon a path of descendence that brings them, at a shuffling pace, through the five stages of grief, before they arrive at their own cramped quarters.

Denial: “It’s gonna be great when I can fly first class. But when I can afford it, I’ll still fly coach. I will fly coach and put the difference in fare towards a noble cause. I pity these poor souls, contented by their own misguided feelings of superiority. They have no sense how diminished they would feel in the shadow of my intellect.” Anger: “Look at this smug bastard. He should be giving back to the world instead of flushing money down the drain for an extra foot of legroom. That’s what I’ll do, when I fix my life. In the meantime I’d love to kick his ass. But Jesus! This son of a bitch sure has plenty of leisure time to spend with his personal trainer. Ease up on the steroids, asshole!” Bargaining: “Excuse me. Hi. … It seems like boarding is wrapping up. I notice there are a quite a few seats still open in First-Class. I was wondering if … No, I’m seated in Economy. … Of course, I understand. … Peanuts would be great. Thank you.” Depression: “Goddamnit. Your life is such a mess. Those people in First-Class probably have orderly systems for accomplishing tasks and staying on top of things. Hell, I’m sure they have assistants and underlings to help with that. When they bump something to the top of their To-Do list, I bet they just knock that item right out, and efficiently too! Your list is an upside-down pyramid, top-loaded with high-priority tasks. Fuck! You are such a fuckup. Your talent doesn’t matter because you don’t know how to get anything done. Why don’t you find your little seat, fold yourself into it, pop one of those oxy-contins that you stole while house-sitting, and waste money you don’t really have on some Johnny Walker minis. In anycase, you self-indulgent fuck, you are boarding an airplane to be spirited across the country. You must be a fucking monster to get so wrapped up in these first-world problems.” Acceptance: “You know what? You are a fuckup, but each morning brings a new day! With perseverance, your talent will prevail. And, for fucksake, you don’t know a damn thing about those people up front. They may have been just like you five years ago. Granted, five years ago, many of them were younger than you are now. But who cares!? 40 is the new 20!”

Following this emotional catharsis, and having passed through First-Class, one enters the section that you call “Economy Plus”. These seats seem to be essentially the same as Economy, but with a bit more legroom and sleeker upholstery. Having just walked past champagne-sipping quasi-nobility, coach travellers are too psychologically spent to resent the Economy Plus section. Furthermore, they are now busy scanning the crowd ahead, counting rows and repeatedly consulting their ticket. They have a preoccupation that is building towards fear, as they inwardly pray for row neighbors that are small in stature and literally mute. Inevitably, at least one of these prayers goes unanswered. This is typically the traveler’s final let down, and they slump into their seat. However, my brother and I kept walking.

In fact, we passed all the way through Economy and arrived in a section that is unnamed and undemarcated. The transition became apparent when we noticed that our seats did not posses the one included luxury of Economy fare: the ability to recline. Welcome to the rear-most row of the aircraft, we are calling it Economy Minus. And yes, in case you are wondering, the window seat of our three-person row was occupied by a legal giant. You can see him hunched over in the background of the video. On screen, his head is half the height of my brother’s, yet 4 times the distance from my camera. I will let you do the math.

The geometric problem with Economy Minus seats is devilishly simple; they are too far back. This is to say that they are pressed up against the rear wall, while in fully upright position. Numerically speaking, the amount of reclination available to an Economy seat is minimal. The top of the seat goes back about 4 inches, transforming it from very uncomfortable, to uncomfortable. At face value, this modest bit of functionality may not seem significant. But, as I will later illustrate, it is. Quite.

For the inquisitive Economy Minus passenger, the aforementioned seating problem invariably begs the question, Why? A cursory inspection of the floor reveals that airplane seats are arbitrarily repositionable along a track system that runs the length of the cabin. With this in mind, I would love to chat with the bean counter in your company who insisted upon this particular seating layout. If each of the 25 or so rows in front of Economy Minus gave up less than one quarter inch, Economy Minus could recline, and thus become a part of Economy.

Arriving at Economy Minus, my brother and I sized up our row companion, noted the reclination issue, and quietly insisted to one another that you, United, were fucking kidding us. Standing in the aisle, we debated the center seat in hushed voices. Though I do not recall which of us actually had the middle seat printed on their ticket, I do recall an immediate agreement that this situation was too grave to have our fates metered out by seat assignments. In typical fashion, we squared off for a very high stakes game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But, before a hand was thrown, we decided that the loss would be too brutal for the loser. We opted for a mid-flight switch. My brother elected to settle first into the worst seat on your plane.

The full cruelness of Economy Minus is wrought upon the weary traveller. My brother was very weary. He closed his eyes as we began to speed down the tarmac and fell asleep as we climbed. I was jealous. I can hardly sleep in reclinable seats. My brother can sleep through anything, and would now sleep his suffering away. Or so I thought. As it turned out, the physics of takeoff had played a nasty trick.

Takeoff is acceleration followed by ascent. The G-force of acceleration and the incline of ascent both serve to press passengers against their seats. In Economy Minus, these phenomena conspire to offer sleepy travelers a false promise. As soon as we leveled off into cruising altitude, devoid of backwards pressure, my brother began, and sustained for shocking durations of time, the vicious cycle seen in the video. With his headphones on, he could just as well have been blackout drunk, headbanging to stoner rock. For most of the next three hours he was in a liminal state far worse than that of being cramped, overly upright, and awake, like myself.

Half way through the flight, before switching seats, we got up to use the bathroom and “walk around the cabin”, as you say. Let me point out that a museum can be walked around. A yard can be walked around. Even a large closet can be walked around. These are two-dimensional spaces. They have surface area. The walking space on a commercial aircraft is a straight line, and a line does not posses surface area. It does not offer the walk-around option. When the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, you don’t notice people getting up, styrofoam tea cup in hand, saying, “I think I’ll go for a stroll”. If they were to do this, they would quickly realize that passing someone in the aisle becomes a four person game of twister that incorporates the two seated persons flanking the pass. At least three of the four participants are guaranteed a close encounter with the genitalia or rear end of a stranger.

So, after twister lost its luster, we headed back to our seats. Meanwhile, our over-sized neighbor had taken to “manspreading”. In his defense, I do not believe this was an act of male social defiance or aggression. I believe his new posture was a product of exhaustion. His leg gently trembled against mine, a spasm likely produced by the past hours of exertion required to confine his giant body to its small allotment of space. With a sense of comradery in shared misery, I adjusted my body to accommodate his, and my brother followed suit. Depicted in text, the three of us were arranged like this: V!!

As would be expected, the remainder of my flight lasted a long time. Physically, I could not sleep. Though if I could, having witnessed my brother’s harrowing nap, I would not have tried. To be sure, I had plenty of time to dwell on our misfortune. At some point, when not consumed by rage or discomfort, I conceived of a simple design that could help to at least mitigate the torments of Economy Minus for some passengers. So, United, instead of belaboring those torments further, let me offer my suggestion. Please attach the center of a strap, oriented horizontally, to the headrests of each seat in Economy Minus. The ends of these straps should connect to each other with velcro to form a loop. That way, if nothing else, the rare passenger such as my brother, who is capable of sleep in the most unbefitting of positions, can don these loops like headbands and get some rest, instead of disembarking as he did, gripping their necks in pain, as they slowly shuffle back towards the door, bitterly through Economy, indignantly through Economy Plus, and defeatedly through First-Class, before stopping in vain to bargain for a refund at the ticket counter on the way out.


Bertison Harlwood