You might have heard them overhead on inauguration day, those faint rumbles in the sky—but you probably didn’t pay them any notice. The airline reservations systems were detecting them in a rapid uptick of booked flights, but their meaning was not synthesized at that level. On Twitter you may have actually seen them: thousands of women filling up jetliners, many of the women wearing pink knit hats, all on their way to the Women’s March on Washington. These women flew in solidarity and in high spirits toward a historic event. On one Southwest flight, the cabin lights were tinted pink in support of the women who filled the plane. In a curious and unexpected way, Donald Trump may have delivered on one of his campaign promises: on January 20, 2017, commercial air travel was arguably a little better throughout the United States. Armrests were shared in a spirit of community and togetherness. Without overhauling airports themselves, Trump had unwittingly inspired a fresh, reinvigorated experience of human flight.
Just a couple months before, amid all the advice columns and cautionary tales about fraught family get-togethers around Thanksgiving, I found myself wondering about this other place where people with potentially opposing views find themselves in close quarters: on the airplanes that transport masses of Americans before and after the holidays. It’s not only around the dinner table that conflicting beliefs emerge and lead to confrontations. In many ways, the cabins of commercial airliners can be even more intense, what with the cramped interiors, limited personal space, and short tempers at play. Now, after the incredible turnout of the Women’s March, I can’t help but consider again these cramped spaces of aerial mobility.
One of my favorite very short stories by Lydia Davis is called “The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane.” I don’t need to summarize the plot—the title pretty much says it all. Airplane rows commonly have two or three seats to a row, and even though passengers are assigned their own discrete spaces—14D, 14E, or 14F, for instance—it’s more like sharing a bench with slim dividers between each person than a row of chairs. It’s actually a minor miracle that air travel this past Thanksgiving didn’t turn into a total meltdown, given the volatile crosscurrents of hostility, anger, sadness, and pride swirling around the post-election United States. Perhaps, counterintuitively, airliners are where we are at our best, not despite but because of the tight quarters.
Armrests in commercial airliners are strange things. When you board the plane, the armrests are usually raised, nestled in between the seatbacks. If you are the first to sit in your row, you may slide an armrest down, to demarcate your space or just to settle in. Or you may leave it up, hoping that no one sits next to you—in which case you can stretch out a bit more, laterally across your designated seat. Occasionally it can be awkward, when a seatmate has not put the armrest down yet and you have to be the one to do it—sometimes with a little friction against their elbow or thigh.
Armrests are borders, but unclear ones. Standard armrests in the economy section of most airliners are not nearly wide enough for two arms to rest on them. It is often a question of who places their forearm there first. And if you take your arm off—to adjust the air blower above your head, say—the space is fair game for your seatmate to take it. Even in first class, armrests can be vague divisions. An especially gregarious or inebriated seatmate can spill over into your space, acoustically and aromatically, if not exactly physically. An aisle armrest—ostensibly a safe space, whether in first class or economy—is fraught for its own reasons. For instance, if your elbow is hanging a centimeter too far when a flight attendant pushes the drink trolley past your row, or if you doze off leaning a bit too far into the aisle, where passengers might jostle you on their way to the lavatory.
A lot of hay was made last year about Jessica Leeds’s claim, a month or so before the election, that her armrest “disappeared” when Donald Trump allegedly reached across the seat divide and groped her beneath her skirt on a flight in the early 1980s. Various sites went to some lengths to show that first-class seats could not—or maybe could—have had retractable armrests at the time that Leeds cites. Some planes around that time most certainly did not have such first-class seating: first-class armrests on these aircraft could not be lifted to allow for heavy petting and were substantial enough to make even leaning across them cumbersome at best. Other contemporaneous airliners clearly did allow for such seating configurations, perhaps anticipating—if not outright encouraging—in-flight sexual advances.
Motivations for such sleuthing may have seemed tactical enough, at the time: Was the claim of sexual aggression true? Were there material facts that might complicate the allegation? I will admit that I wondered, too, when I first heard Leeds describe the situation, how the armrest between their seats could simply have vanished. Newer first-class seating almost always involves a fixed armrest.
Still, this quibble misses the point. No matter the model of plane, the layout of seats, and the maneuverability of the dividers, armrests, as we all know, can most definitely disappear. That, importantly, is the word that Leeds used in her statement: “the armrest disappeared.” Whether or not armrests can physically be raised and recessed in between seats, they can indeed seem to dematerialize. They do this all the time.
Louis C.K. once riffed on this potentiality in an episode of Louie, where a much larger man inhabits the seat next to his. Louis is barely able to move, with the other passenger overflowing his own seat, in exaggerated form. (Interestingly, by the end of Louie’s flight, the two seatmates seem to have bonded and become friends.)
As frequent travelers have likely experienced—first-class, business, or economy, it really doesn’t matter—there is always a chance that a neighboring passenger will extend beyond their personal space and make your trip demonstrably theirs. In the case of Donald Trump and Jessica Leeds, the disappearing of the armrest seems to have been done in an aggressive and indefensible style.
And this matters, as anyone who has felt dominated by a seatmate should readily admit. If the situation involves sexual advances or any other misconduct, you might leave the plane feeling disgusted if not outright assaulted, something far beyond what Newt Gingrich at the time crassly dismissed as merely “a bad airplane flight.”
Only sometimes, this really, really matters. Like when there is abuse. Like when the bad seatmate is then chosen to become the leader of a country. Airplane armrests are never a simple matter of neutral ground; they are subtle barometers of power differentials, and therefore we might pay extra-special attention to such spaces rather than overlook them. They can become sites of passive aggression, intense contestation, and simmering wrath—and they may be especially tense when it comes to gender, which has been a charged aspect of commercial aviation throughout its history. Airplane armrests are complex objects, not just technically speaking, over which complex social dynamics play out on a daily basis. We may forget about armrests once we land and walk away from our flights. But most of us know the indignity of these thin separators, to one degree or another.
Regardless of the aircraft model or seat configuration, armrests can indeed be made to disappear. People have power, and this is not always a good thing, depending on where you’re sitting: an armrest can portend an uncomfortable duration to be suffered through. At the same time, armrests might be championed as durable facilitators of our many differences, the architecture of our impressive capacity for sharing seats.
And then, of course, only a week after those flights full of protestors took to the air, Trump would change air travel once again—to another very different, and sinister, end.