Dean's Blog: Air Travel as a Contact Sport

by William Clements, PhD on 4/12/19 4:00 PM

Those who have traveled by air for many years may pine for the days of comfortable seats, leg room, and easy boarding. A seat with plenty of room for the legs of somebody six feet tall was the norm, as were seats that didn’t recline into your chest when the person in front of you inevitably feels his or her seat is a Lazy Boy recliner. Continuing to push harder won’t make it recline further and just might crack my computer screen, although unless seated in “extra” comfort rows today using a laptop is virtually impossible.


As I write I am reminded by a flight attendant to “watch my arms and legs” as the infamous drink cart rolls by and within a fraction of an inch of me. All while I am simply sitting in my seat and not particularly encroaching on aisle space.

So why is air travel a contact sport? Let’s start with luggage and particularly with back packs. I’ve noticed an increased use of backpacks or all sizes over the past few decades with some of the larger military style packs increasingly popular.  While great for the convenience of travel (I have used a computer capable backpack for years) most users neglect to understand that he turning radius of a back pack is zero degrees when it is being worn in a confined space. What this means for those who sit in the aisle are constant slaps in the arms and face for those twisting and turning as they navigate the aisle.  I have come to refer the first row aisle seat where boarding takes place as the “slap seat” – as passengers turn to go down the aisle I usually take a fusillade of smacks when in this position. It usually doesn’t get much better further down the aisle.  Perhaps required training for backpack etiquette is in order.

The amazing and shrinking aisle also contributes to increased contact. In most planes aisles are simply unable to accommodate a person of normal stature walking straight and square to the walkway. The new movement required is a sidestep that brings back memories of my elementary school PT test. Coupled with the prevalence of backpacks and other large shoulder packs one can see how this has become problematic and fosters contact. I often feel like a billiard ball navigating aisles to get to the latrine.

Of course we can’t ignore the fact that people are getting bigger, and I don’t mean from a regimen of fitness. The average adult has gained significant weight and some height over the past forty years, yet airline seats have simultaneously continued to shrink in width; this is what might be referred to as a negative correlation. I forecast that the airlines aren’t far from plans (if not already on the shelf) to have passengers stand in a stall as per passenger cubic feet is optimized. Sitting takes up so much unnecessary space. In the interim, I pray each flight that my seat mates are of a body size that doesn’t require encroachment on my space or me to lean into the aisle, you know what will happen at that point. Contact from both sides.

In combination all of these factors conspire to make air travel a new contact sport, the issue isn’t whether there will be contact but how much and will it really hurt. Walking down the aisle, sitting quietly in your seat, or any other movement on a plane will increasingly require protective gear. Now there is something to think about as an entrepreneurial start-up idea, I’m sure there is capital awaiting just such a noble cause.

Norwich University Online
author avatar

This post was written by William Clements, PhD

William “Bill” Clements, PhD, wears several hats at Norwich University. In addition to serving as Dean of the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies (CGCS), he is the College’s Vice President of Academic Affairs and a professor in the undergraduate criminal justice program. Prior to becoming Dean in 2005, he was the founding director of the Master of Justice Administration program and the executive director of the Vermont Center for Justice Research, an institutional research partner of Norwich University. Dean Clements began his Norwich career in 1987 as a criminal justice professor and was among the first Norwich professors to integrate online instruction and web-based resources into his teaching. In 1999, he piloted a mobile computing initiative with undergraduate criminal justice majors and was subsequently involved in developing the online graduate program model, which today serves several thousand students across several master’s degree programs and bachelor’s degree completion program, and a variety of certificate and enrichment programs.