We occupy spaces, and sometimes, those spaces come at a cost. Let me give you three examples that bring this to a head (or a knee, as the case may be), all dealing with air travel.
A friend on Facebook recently posted this status: “I f*cking hate ‘Economy Plus’ concept. I am tall – give me leg room for free, and stop giving it to the 4’11” person who pays $50 extra.” Now, to be fair, this person really is quite tall… several inches above 6 feet. And it’s pretty easy to see his side of the argument; he physically needs the extra space, so the airline should give it to him. Us shorter folks might appreciate the extra space for, say, easier laptop usage, but it’s not quite the same thing. Regardless, the airlines charge more for the extra space. And in the absence of the extra leg room, both the tall person and the person sitting in front of him/her are — well — uncomfortable for the duration of the flight because of knee or back pain.
Now consider another example… people who physically need more space horizontally rather than vertically. I’m talking about fat people who spill over into the adjacent seat(s). These people could probably make a similar argument to the one offered by the tall folks needing more leg room. Think about it: “I am fat – give me tush room for free, and stop giving it to the thin person who [doesn’t need it].” Again, the argument doesn’t fly (or hasn’t yet). The airlines can charge more for an additional seat, and even require it in some cases. And again, in the absence of the extra side space (i.e., an extra seat), both the fat person and the people on either side of him/her are uncomfortable for the duration of the flight.
The third example serves as a pseudo-remedy for half the people involved in the first scenario. Just a few weeks before my friend’s Facebook post appeared on my news feed, the NYT published this article about a new contraption designed to block the person in front of you from reclining his or her seat. It seems the people most likely to use this “Knee Defender” are the tall people, like my Facebook friend, whose knees are already pretty close to (or right up against) the seat in front of them before the passengers in the seats ahead push the recline button. But isn’t it part of the seat’s functionality (for which people pay) to recline? And if the person in 7C is using this Knee Defender contraption, I bet the person in 6C isn’t too happy about it. 6C paid for the seat. The seat is designed to recline. Isn’t it 6C’s choice to recline and use the functionality for which 6C paid?
The law’s answer is no. The FAA says that the Knee Defender, costing $19.95, is legal. The law also says that the airlines can charge $50 extra for additional leg room and require fat people to purchase a second seat (clearly for more than $50). All three are about a person needing more space than standard coach seats allow. The Knee Defender folks claim they are “standing up for the right of the tall guy to sit down.” One could argue that the airlines, by requiring the purchase of an additional seat or extra leg room, are protecting the rights of the folks who fit in the standard seats. Of course, there’s a fourth option: first class. Tough for many air travelers to afford. And if the spaces in coach are enlarged overall, it stands to reason that the cost of coach will come much closer to the cost of first class… prohibitively expensive in several cases, and likely an unpopular choice for the airlines to make. Let’s assume that the spaces will not be enlarged any time soon.
So whose rights are actually protected by the law? Thin people. Short people. Anyone who purchases a Knee Defender. The Knee Defender manufacturer and the airlines, focusing on their profits. Maybe all’s fair in commerce and air travel. Stop and ask, though… is it really fair? And which parts do you think are fair, while other parts perhaps are not? Is it more fair to make fat people purchase additional seat space than it is to make tall people purchase additional knee space? Why? And what about our friends in 6C and 7C? If 7C isn’t in Economy Plus, is it fair for 6C to have to sit with knees in his or her back for several hours? [Tall folks aren’t (yet) required to pay for Economy Plus.] On the flip side, is it fair to allow 7C to take away 6C’s right to recline?
Maybe the law’s answer should be that the rights to protect are those of the person who purchased the use of a particular space, and anyone who interferes with the use of that space is invading. Or maybe the law’s answer should be that the airlines must accommodate now-larger Americans by increasing the spaces purchased. What would be the costs? And what are the costs we incur in the system as it currently exists?