Former USWNT star Abby Wambach is not immune from life’s indignities. She was forced to fly commercial. A man sitting next to her claimed the arm rest. She posted a photo on Instagram, expressing her dissatisfaction with the breach of “airplane armrest etiquette.”
Cut and dry? Not quite. It’s not clear from the photo than an armrest etiquette breach took place.
Airplane armrests are too narrow to share with a stranger. The amount of contact that would require would classify it as a public display of affection, leaving it subject to a host of other unwritten etiquette rules in a public setting.
Seat location context is critical. That’s not apparent from her photo. The person in the middle seat is entitled to both armrests. It’s fair. It’s standard procedure. Wambach could be in the middle. So could the man to her left. We can’t tell.
If this is a two-person situation, things get murkier. Instant power dynamics and, perhaps, male chivalry enter the calculus. Someone may just stake a claim. We prefer both parties lean opposite ways, sacrificing the armrest to create a whiff of a buffer zone.
Extenuating circumstances, of course, can come into play. One of the most common: the person is too large to fit in the seat.
Wambach played at about 5’11” 180 pounds. On the pitch, she was a powerful, fearsome target woman. In life, she’s about the size and build of an average adult male. Judging from the relative arm size, and the gut protruding past the length of the armrest, we may be dealing with a quite large person.
Generally, one constricts oneself to one’s allotment of space. But, that’s within reason. One should not be expected to hold an unsustainable or breath restricting position for the duration of a plane flight. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough room for a person to tuck in his/her arm. The laws of physics must trump the general principles of armrest etiquette.
There’s no real solution to this conundrum. Forced purchase of “plus-sized seats” is a no go. Enforcing airplane friendly body dimensions through public shaming would be cruel. Americans aren’t a confrontational people. We take our interpersonal troubles to our social media followers.
Perhaps Wambach is sitting in the middle seat and maybe the photograph makes the person look larger than he is. But, it seems plausible he was within his rights to claim the armrest.
The true villain is, of course, the airlines, cramming us into the cargo bay like sardines and tempting us to pay extra for the few rows of “economy comfort” which was once normal seating.