(“exit row” was initially published on culture-voice.com)
I used to travel a lot. I mean a lot. Three out of four weeks I’d be out of town due to my work. I thought of myself as quite the savvy traveler. I looked down my nose at the ‘vacation’ travelers that would clog up the security checkpoints and ticket counters come summer. They moved so slowly. Did they have to bring everything they owned on vacation with them? Didn’t they realize that some of us were working.
It was around this time when I became an exit row sitter. I knew the system, and somehow at that point it hadn’t occurred to the masses that they too could request an exit row. It also hadn’t occurred to the airlines that they could charge extra for an exit row. So I partook of the knowledge from my frequent traveler status and got an exit row aisle almost every flight. It was so nice not to be crowded. So nice not to have the person in front of you practically in your lap for the duration of the flight.
After enjoying and taking pride in my travel savvy ways for quite some time I had a troubling encounter. As I was walking smugly toward my exit row seat I happened to notice the man sitting in the row directly in front of it—you know, the row that has no leg room and also can’t lean back, due to the exit row behind? This man had to be pushing 7 feet tall. He was in aisle seat, but still, there was hardly room for him to bend his legs to wedge them in. My smug glee melted as I sat down in my roomy seat behind him. I’m 5 foot 2.
The exit row was mine, fair and square. I’d asked for it, I’d been given it. I hadn’t stolen it from anyone. I spent way too many hours on planes in my life during those days, so it seemed almost like I deserved some comfort, didn’t I?
Yet I couldn’t shake it. The nagging sense of guilt. Not the bad kind of guilt, but the good kind. The kind that tells you when something isn’t as it should be. When you might be playing a part in what’s not quite right in the world.
The thing is, though it’s of course nice, at 5 foot 2 I don’t need an exit row. Sure, it’s cramped when the person in front leans back and you can’t even move your legs. No, I don’t enjoy being crowded on an airplane any more than the next person. Yes, I avoid middle seats like the plague. No, I’m not some sort of martyrous glutton for punishment.
But in a world where so few of us use such a disproportionate amount of the planet’s resources, is there perhaps a place for not taking up all the space that we can procure for ourselves? Is there room for knowing one could get an exit row, but choosing instead to leave it to others? Or is that just nonsense? Someone’s going to get the benefit of that extra 5.3 inches of legroom—it might as well be me, right? If I don’t ask for it, who knows who might? Maybe someone even shorter than me, who deserves it less! Or maybe some arrogant jerk business traveler who thinks he’s better than the rest of us peons crowded in?
Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be said for relinquishing what I ‘deserve,’ regardless of the outcome?