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  • AP Photos
  • Passengers want their two inches—next, the moon.

The opposite of a placebo is the drug you don’t take because you know it won’t do you any good. It might be a fine drug. You might even have seen it advertised on television! But you’re certain it won’t help.

Something along these lines explains why when I fly I rarely put my seat back. I was uncomfortable as soon as I sat down and I’m going to remain uncomfortable, so why go through the motions? The idea of leaning back no longer even occurs to me. Near the end of the flight, when the order goes out to “return your seats to an upright position,” I often think oops and lean back as far as I can go to find out what ease and comfort I just missed out on; but it’s never much.

I read in Wednesday’s Tribune that it had just happened again—another flight diverted by a fracas between passengers ignited by one’s desire to recline into the other’s space. This was a Delta flight from New York to West Palm Beach that made an emergency landing in Jacksonville, where the local cops were waiting. It was the third time in a week. Delta flies Boeing 717-200s on this route, and the seat pitch—the distance between the back of your seat and the back of the seat in front of you in coach is 31 inches—which isn’t as cramped as it gets but not far from it.

How far back can a seat tilt under these conditions? It’s harder to find info on recline than pitch online. But here’s a two-year-old CNN piece that gives us some idea: it reports Southwest Airlines cutting its pitch from 32 to 31 inches (while claiming other tweaks actually increased legroom), and the distance its seats recline from three to two inches.

Two inches—three for that matter—is not a recline that provides actual comfort. Claiming those two inches is simply a way to say screw you to the world, letting it know that in a world of deprivation I’m grabbing what’s mine!

I’m reminded of what they say about campus politics—the reason they’re so vicious is that the stakes are so small. On that Delta flight one passenger reportedly wanted to lean back and the other wanted to rest her head on her tray table and get some sleep. Fat chance either would have bounded off the plane refreshed in West Palm Beach.

As World War II ended Pan Am created illustrations that promoted its next-generation airliner as, among other things, a Pullman in the sky. The plane wasn’t built; the industry went off in another direction. For images of the place the industry arrived at, I googled “sleeping on airplanes.” As I study these photos I well up, remembering a third-class train trip across Morocco I’m proud to have survived.

Misery has its uses. When we fly these days we arrive victorious, having taken the best shot transportation could throw at us. As seat-back rage spreads, the opportunity for self-ennoblement will widen. Soon we’ll be swaggering off the plane. Maybe we just prevailed in a silent test of wills; or possibly we made an incredibly magnanimous sacrifice. Or it could be we turned our back on this crazy world and negotiated a separate peace. Nothing beats passing a private test of character as around us civilization collapses.