Sunday, February 5, 2017

The best way to sleep in Economy Class.

The lights dimmed shortly after our trays were collected, and it was time to get my game on. I took note of the silhouette next to me and inched my body closer.

This is not erotic fiction.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend college in another country. School is really far away from home; even with minimal time spent waiting, the most efficient route takes me about twenty-eight hours from door to door. The breakdown is listed as follows:
  • The direct flight between Hong Kong and New York takes about fifteen and a half hours, which (as of writing) is one of the longest commercially available flights
  • The car ride between New York City and my college takes about four or five hours
  • The rest of the time is spent checking in, going through immigration, waiting in line on both ends, traveling between home and the airport, etc.
I have also been really blessed with the privilege of being able to go home twice a year: once during the summer and once during the winter. As of now, I have done this direct flight 15 times.

With those blessings in mind, the sheer length of the journey can really be a drag in the moment. Of course, the single biggest part of this journey is the flight, and the single biggest relevant reality is that I, like many other college students, fly Economy Class. For most Economy Class individuals, this imposes some limits on the maximum degree of comfort one can achieve.

Here's one way to think about it: visualize one square for every hour of the flight. For example:



Of course, the airline has its own plans, too, so we need to add some details:



(Note: these details are based on CX 845, a flight that leaves from JFK a little after midnight in New York and arrives Hong Kong at around 5am a day later, Hong Kong time. I have now done this specific flight 7 times, so I feel very qualified to sound like I know what I'm talking about.)

There are a few assumptions that will be held throughout this post:
  • That one is seated in Economy Class (worth restating)
  • That all meals are eaten
  • That sleeping is desirable in an attempt to minimize jetlag and exhaustion after landing
  • That sleeping is preferable to most other activities, including watching TV, feebly attempting to do work on a laptop while the person in front has aggressively reclined their seat, and twiddling thumbs
  • That Cathay Pacific's instant noodles are low-key some of the best I've ever eaten
With these assumptions in mind, this is what I want my flights to be like:



As you can see, this mostly entails sleeping, with the exception of being briefly awake to pee, moisturize, stretch, hydrate, and enjoy those instant noodles.

Life isn't always ideal, so this is what usually happens:


The biggest explanatory factor for the gap between the aforementioned ideal situation and reality is (as you might expect) that for many people, it's difficult to fall asleep in an Economy Class seat. The distance between the two armrests of a Cathay Pacific Economy Class seat is about 18 inches, and the distance between two rows of seats - in other words, legroom - is about 32 inches. (This is my source, and I love that somebody compiled an extensive database that allows you to sort through various airlines and their seat dimensions.)

My simple mind, addled by years in the social sciences and humanities, has spent a lot of time visualizing what this means. Over the past four years, I've devised a Grand Big Idea to maximize sleep on long-haul flights.

Imagine a 32 x 18 x L cuboid, with L being a theoretically flexible number, because it doesn't matter as much how tall you are as long as you are within a pretty wide range.



Of course, it's not that simple because 1) there's the damn seat, which is a fixed variable, and 2) there is the general assumption that whatever you do, it will involve some variation of sitting. With these two facts, the way your body is situated vertically (these dimensions are in the context of looking down at your own lap) is pretty much decided for you. You have to sit. Your butt has to be on the seat. You have to face forwards. (If these two assumptions are invalid for you, then good for you. Get off this page.) Also, this doesn't take the ability to recline one's seat into consideration: as of now, Cathay Pacific's Economy Class seats allow for 6 inches of recline.

So, assuming that you've pretty much accepted the level of discomfort that comes from being unable to stretch your legs out like you would in bed, the real question is how you make the most of the way your body is situated horizontally.


Here are some more assumptions (I know this is incredibly illegitimate and I'm fighting to keep you here) that should be made for my Grand Big Idea to be valid:

  • That the angle at which your upper body rests with respect to the seat is preferably as low as possible (in the same way that somebody sleeping in bed would be resting at 0° in respect to their bed, and in the same way that somebody sitting perfectly upright would be situated at 90° in respect to their seat) 
  • That you are conceptually indifferent between the idea of leaning straight backwards and leaning to either of your sides
  • That you are within 2 standard devisions of the mean height of the adult population
  • That you are slightly immoral
Over the past few years, I've observed a lot of people reclining their plane seats, leaning back, and:

1) Failing to properly fall asleep: a lot of these people will fidget and/or give up
2) Falling asleep, but waking up after jerking forwards violently (this is the worst feeling ever)

In addition to the comfort that comes from a lower angle at which your upper body rests in respect to where you are, I believe that a lower angle, in combination with a soft surface to rest your head on, minimizes the probability of #1 and/or #2 happening.

I have forgotten almost everything I learned about trigonometry, but I think the concept of angles can be used to explain why one feels more comfortable than the other:


In this diagram, the person is illustrated by the purple rectangles and the seat is illustrated by the white shapes. The diagram on the left is a front-view diagram illustrating a person leaning to their right/the reader's left at angle a from the seat, while the diagram on the right is a side-view diagram illustrating a person leaning backwards at angle b from the seat. I have very generously provided the approximate location of the person's nose as a point of reference, if you are confused.

Again, I don't know all that much about high-level and/or basic trigonometry, but it seems intuitive that the further you lean, the smaller the angle in respect to the seat. As demonstrated in the above diagram, angle a is smaller than angle b. This is because:


Picture a right-angled triangle (a triangle where there is a 90° angle) where the three sides are i) your seat, ii) your upper body, and iii) the imaginary vertical distance between your head and the seat.

Given that angle between iii) the imaginary vertical distance between your head and the seat and i) the seat itself is always going to be 90° if there is any leaning whatsoever involved, the upper body of the individual sitting serves as the hypotenuse of the right-angled triangle. One of the principles of trigonometry is that the hypotenuse is always the side that is opposite to the right angle. The length of a person's upper body is a variable that stays constant no matter which way they lean in a seat. Another trigonometric principle is that in two right-angled triangles with identical hypotenuses, the lengths of each triangle's other two sides will affect the distribution of the remaining 90° in the triangle. (Somebody else could explain this a lot better with technical terms, but I hope my layman explanation suffices.) In other words, angle a is smaller than angle b because you can recline only 6 inches backwards, but you can lean more than 6 inches to the side.

"This makes no sense," you ask, feeling a sense of indignation about the previous 8 minutes of your life that you will never get back. "How can you definitely lean more than 6 inches to the side?"

And this was my very roundabout way of laying out my Grand Big Idea.

Grand Big Idea, also known as "Thinking out of the box: the best way to sleep in economy class."
The diagram probably gave it away: Assuming no regard for someone else's well-being, I think the best way to sleep in economy class is to break out of the confines of your seat, think out of the box (or cuboid, I guess), and sleep with your head on your neighbor's shoulder.

Don't look at me like that. Plenty of entrepreneurs make a killing by selling books on thinking out of the box.

To be clear, I recognize that:
  • This idea is incredibly selfish in at least two ways:
    • This might cause physical discomfort for the person next to you, especially in their shoulder area.
    • (Hopefully less likely, but must be acknowledged) this might cause emotional discomfort or distress for the person next to you; I have also become more aware of my privilege, in this case, of being a small Asian young woman. I can see how this action might be (unfortunately) perceived differently by someone else if I had different characteristics.
      • The physical and/or emotional discomfort experienced by the other person is still real, even if they do not tell you about it
  • This idea does not work if both people try to lean on each other's shoulders at once, or if both people lean in the same direction
Before we get into the morality of whether it's acceptable to rest your head on your neighbor's shoulder, it's worth considering this in the form of a game theory matrix:


We'll assume that your neighbor is unaware of the Grant Big Idea/unwilling to lean on you because they're a nice person, unlike me, so the bottom row of this matrix basically doesn't happen.

In other words: you either experience great comfort, or you miss out on the chance to experience greater comfort (again, holding all previous mathematical assumptions about the derivation of comfort to be true). Therefore, you should go for the outcome that maximizes your own comfort.

Game theory suggests that two individuals in a game theory-esque situation might behave differently if:
  • These two individuals each had a better understanding of each other's motives and options before making their own choice
  • These two individuals had to, or could, talk to each other before making their own choice
  • These same two individuals had to make their decisions several times, experiencing the consequences of their choices each time
Theoretically, if my neighbor and I a) had complete and symmetric information of our Airplane Seat Values, b) established a rapport, c) had to take many flights sitting next to each other in Economy Class, or d) any combination of a-c, we might behave differently. I hypothesize that if these conditions happened, we would either:

1) Not lean on each other, because we would - either implicitly or explicitly - establish that it is not acceptable to lean on each other because personal space is to be respected
2) Implicitly or explicitly establish that it is acceptable to lean on each other because these flights last fucking forever and all we have during these times is each other

But conditions a-c have yet to happen to me in real life, so this is still a purely hypothetical situation. In my long-haul flights, I have (to the best of my knowledge) had a different neighbor each time, and my 15 neighbors didn't speak to me much. 

(Note: this entire thing gets more complicated when you consider the possibility that you might be sitting in between two people. This possibility is very real on the Boeing 777-300ER, the aircraft used for the JFK-HKG direct flights with a 3x3 layout per row in Economy Class. For the purposes of simplicity, I only assume the existence of one neighbor. My assumptions are also clouded by the reality that I prefer aisle seats, and have always managed to get one. Therefore, I've always only had one neighbor.)

Now, back to the ethics of maximizing comfort at the expense of others. I think that one way to go about this is to work on minimizing the discomfort of your neighbor, in these ways:
  • Minimize your neighbor's physical discomfort by placing a pillow between your head and their shoulder. Even better: fold the pillow in half to create some more distance and soften the load.
  • The Most Ideal Situation is when your seat is reclined further than your neighbor's, and you can place (part of) the pillow on the side of their seat instead of on them.

  • Your neighbor is likely to more creeped out/annoyed if they knew that you intended to sleep on their shoulder, even more so if they knew you wrote over 2,000 words on the benefits of doing so. Therefore, minimize your neighbor's emotional discomfort by putting effort into making your actions look completely unintentional:
    • Fold your pillow in half, and place it slightly to your side. Close your eyes. Stay totally still for ten minutes, and then execute a believably sudden "drop" closer to your neighbor's shoulder.
    • If you wake up on their shoulder and they are awake, make a sincere apology and let half an hour elapse without sleeping on their shoulder again. The apologies seem to have worked: on 2 of my flights, the person sitting next to me responded by saying that I could keep sleeping on their shoulder if I wanted (again, acknowledging my identity and possible subconscious perceptions that come from it). One of them even added, "I know you must be really exhausted after a semester of college."
These suggestions will minimize the discomfort someone else feels. However, isn't this way of thinking a slippery slope into the conclusion that we can get away with immoral actions (like knowingly invading someone else's personal space on a plane) as long as we "try" to show regard for others or as long as we pass them off as accidents? Things like these make me worried about my ability to go to heaven, but I think hell is going to meet its maximum allocated population quota with all these politicians trying to repeal reproductive rights, among many other things. I wrestle with this question and its implications on my state of morality, but I choose maximizing comfort and minimizing jetlag every single time.