Reclining Your Airplane Seat: Right Or Privilege?

Reclining Your Airplane Seat: Right Or Privilege?

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It kind of amazes me how often we see viral stories about arguments that arise over seat recline on airplanes. Perhaps the reason this always goes so viral is because of how polarizing this topic is. Don’t get me wrong, I have my opinions, but fundamentally my belief is simply “let’s all be considerate to one another and minimize confrontations.” That belief doesn’t seem to be shared by many people.

As airlines increasingly squeeze more seats into planes, these situations will likely only continue to get worse. In this post I wanted to share my in-depth take on seat recline, and also address some of the arguments that I frequently see made. I’m then curious to hear what OMAAT readers have to say.

Reclining your seat is a right

For me it’s quite simple. Reclining your seat, when the functionality is available, is a right. After all, the recline button is located at your seat, and not the seat behind you.

There seems to be a common misconception about legroom being reduced when the person in front of you reclines:

  • Only the upper part of the seat generally moves, and not the lower part
  • If you recline your seat as well, then you’ll still have the same space between you and the seat in front

Again, none of this is to suggest that everyone should recline, but I do firmly believe that the right to recline belongs to the person with the button.

Reclining your airplane seat is a right

You should still be courteous

While you have the right to recline, that doesn’t mean that you actually should. If you’re going to recline your seat, you should be courteous with how you go about it. If the person seated behind you kindly asks you not to recline your seat (and has good reason for it), you should do the right thing, in my opinion.

For example, personally if I’m traveling in economy I don’t recline my seat at all (in fairness, I’m fortunate to generally not fly long hauls or redeyes in economy). Space is limited enough, and I am happy just sitting upright.

How to go about reclining your airplane seat

If you are going to recline your seat, I think there are a couple of things that you should do:

  • You should make eye contact with the person behind you, or somehow make them aware that you are reclining
  • You should slowly recline your seat, so that they have time to shift a laptop or whatever else they might have on their tray
Be considerate about how you recline your seat

What if the person in front of you reclines?

My stance on being reclined on from the seat in front of me is as follows:

  • If you’re reclined on and it’s absolutely unbearable, kindly ask the passenger in front of you if they wouldn’t mind keeping the seat upright; remember that you’re asking them a favor, and that you’re not entitled to that, so phrase the question accordingly
  • If they have an issue with it and it really is unbearable, explain the issue to a flight attendant and see if they can reseat you or somehow intervene
  • If you know in advance that economy will be extremely uncomfortable (for example, if you’re really tall), pay extra for a seat with more legroom — almost all airlines will sell you extra legroom seats for a premium, and that can be worth it to avoid misery
  • If you really have an issue with seat recline, fly an airline that doesn’t allow you to recline seats, like Spirit (then again, airlines with non-reclining seats typically also have among the least seat pitch)

Avoid confrontation at all costs

This should go without saying, but given how many viral stories we see about seat recline, I guess it needs to be said. At 35,000 feet and in a post-9/11 world, you should never:

  • Do anything that would provoke another passenger to take physical or verbal action against you
  • Approach another passenger in an angry way in order to “take matters into your own hands”
  • Do something passive aggressive

I’m not opposed to non-reclining seats

While I do think reclining your seat is a right when the functionality is available, I’m not opposed to the trend we’ve seen among some airlines to introduce non-reclining seats. If airlines are going to keep seats as tight as they’ve become, I think it’s not a bad idea.

The thing about seat recline is that it’s a useful feature when everyone is on the same page. For example, on a redeye I think just about everyone is happy to have a reclining seat, since most people want to sleep. If everyone reclines, everyone is better off.

The issue arises from flights where people aren’t on the same page — for example, where one person wants to sleep, and the person behind them wants to work on their laptop.

Delta is a customer centered airline, and in 2019 the airline reduced seat recline on A320s without completely eliminating it, and it’s not a bad decision, in my opinion.

Arguments that I don’t agree with

When the topic of seat recline comes up, I see people making some arguments that I don’t personally agree with, and I want to share why. Again, to me this all comes down to just trying to be a reasonable human being who is looking to minimize confrontation.

“Airlines are at fault for making seats tighter”

There’s no denying that airlines are making seats tighter, and consumers don’t like it. At the same time, the introduction of these dense planes (look at the business models of Frontier and Spirit, for example) has allowed airfare to be at among the lowest we’ve seen in history (adjusted for inflation).

This makes travel more accessible for all, and I’d argue on balance that’s a good thing. For the most part airlines give passengers opportunities to purchase seats with extra legroom, so if you want to look at it differently, you’re still usually coming out ahead buying a seat with extra legroom compared to what airfare used to be in the “good old days.”

The trend toward less legroom has lead to lower fares

“Tall people should just buy first class”

To counter the point that airlines are at fault, some people say that tall people should just buy first class. Obviously that’s not always possible financially. I do think there’s an important distinction to make here, though:

  • People who will be physically uncomfortable in economy as a result of reclining seats should try to do what they reasonably can to avoid those seats (whether that’s booking an airline with non-reclining seats, or paying for an extra legroom seat)
  • Sometimes that’s simply not possible, and in those situations we can still be compassionate and considerate to those people who are really uncomfortable, rather than doing things to spite them

“Just point the air nozzle at the person reclining”

Some people suggest that if the person in front of you reclines, take your air nozzle and point it right at the head of the person in front. There are several other similar suggestions I’ve seen people make, and all of them come down to people being jerks.

It shocks me that people see this as an appropriate response:

  • Generally speaking, people aren’t reclining their seat with malicious intent
  • If you point your air nozzle at someone else, that’s malicious and passive aggressive

This will all go downhill pretty quickly. You’ll “accidentally” point your air nozzle at another passenger, and then that person will “accidentally” spill hot coffee on you.

Can’t we all try to just be courteous to one another, express concerns with words rather than passive aggressiveness, and try to make situations better rather than worse?

Bottom line

Personally I think seat recline is a right and not a privilege, but I actually don’t think it matters (and this is my key takeaway from all of this). There are people who have very good logic for believing it’s a right, and there are people who have very good logic for believing it’s a privilege.

Short of airlines creating “pro-recline” and “anti-recline” sections of the plane (which isn’t happening), we are just best off being considerate toward one another.

A vast majority of people aren’t boarding a flight looking for a fight, but rather they’re just trying to get between two points as comfortably and punctually as possible.

If you are going to recline your seat, do so slowly, and make sure the person behind you knows. If you’re being reclined on and it’s unbearable, politely ask the person if they wouldn’t mind putting their seat back up.

No matter what, don’t be a jerk. If you can’t come to a reasonable agreement with the other person involved, immediately ask a flight attendant for help, and don’t try to take matters into your own hands.

Where do you stand on seat recline etiquette?

Conversations (45)
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  1. Al Guest

    I’m not sure why you’re writing this “expert” advice if “generally I don’t fly economy” ! My daughter has just been bullied by an obstreperous man and a flight attendant trying to appease him while on the second leg of a flight from New Zealand to Paris, with her back kicking off ( at night, because he wanted to watch a film ) No doubt you don’t get this harassment in Business Class !
    ...

    I’m not sure why you’re writing this “expert” advice if “generally I don’t fly economy” ! My daughter has just been bullied by an obstreperous man and a flight attendant trying to appease him while on the second leg of a flight from New Zealand to Paris, with her back kicking off ( at night, because he wanted to watch a film ) No doubt you don’t get this harassment in Business Class !
    Why the hell shouldn’t you recline your seat when the functionallty is built in to your seat ?

  2. Tk2023 Guest

    Maybe they can install a central control, wherein the seats would automatically recline, then those who want to be upright may do so through their buttons. ‍♀️

  3. ClownDancer Guest

    I think seats should recline only 1 or 2 notches. I always tell the prrson behind me i might recline 1 or 2 notches. I look at the reclined position from the isle to see how bad it is. People behind me slways appreciate ehat i do.

  4. Miami305 Gold

    @Lucky – You are inconsistent in your “rulings”

    First you say… “Reclining your seat, when the functionality is available, is a right. After all, the recline button is located at your seat, and not the seat behind you.”

    Later you say…
    “Some people suggest that if the person in front of you reclines, take your air nozzle and point it right at the head of the person in front. There are several other similar...

    @Lucky – You are inconsistent in your “rulings”

    First you say… “Reclining your seat, when the functionality is available, is a right. After all, the recline button is located at your seat, and not the seat behind you.”

    Later you say…
    “Some people suggest that if the person in front of you reclines, take your air nozzle and point it right at the head of the person in front. There are several other similar suggestions I’ve seen people make, and all of them come down to people being jerks.”

    Your first statement’s logic would indicate pointing the air nozzle in any direction it goes is a right. After all, the air nozzle is located at your seat, and not the seat in front of you.

    The best solution – require the seats to have zero backward movement. As the recline, the base slides forward. No change in adjacent space, recline or not.

  5. Bails from Oz Guest

    I fundamentally disagree with you that simply because a seat recline button is installed on current airline seats that it is a right for the passenger to recline at will. If that was the case then using the window shades inappropriately would also be a right.

    In my view the seat recline is the single most divisive facility in air transport as it has the ability to greatly diminish the comfort and utility for the...

    I fundamentally disagree with you that simply because a seat recline button is installed on current airline seats that it is a right for the passenger to recline at will. If that was the case then using the window shades inappropriately would also be a right.

    In my view the seat recline is the single most divisive facility in air transport as it has the ability to greatly diminish the comfort and utility for the passenger directly behind.

    Airlines really need to formulate a strategy for making Coach/Economy seated travel are more equitable way of travelling, especially on longer duration flights.

    But of course points of view may differ.

  6. L.M.T Guest

    Agree with Ben… it’s common etiquette. Ben doesn’t have to travel in economy to know basic etiquette. Can’t believe how rude some of the other comments are… those are just the people that would kick the back of your seats!

  7. Pakmann2k Guest

    Here is a different way to look at it, the seat was designed to be sat in, in a reclined position. They have to be set upright so you can maneuver into the row for boarding and deplaning. Landing and takeoff, they have to be upright in case of emergency so you can get out quickly. Other than that, reclined is the way they designed these seats for you to sit in. To put this...

    Here is a different way to look at it, the seat was designed to be sat in, in a reclined position. They have to be set upright so you can maneuver into the row for boarding and deplaning. Landing and takeoff, they have to be upright in case of emergency so you can get out quickly. Other than that, reclined is the way they designed these seats for you to sit in. To put this into perspective, many airlines limit the recline angle to 5 degrees, the same back angle provided on NYC subway seats.

  8. Joe Guest

    I've this happen to me a few times in 20 years of travel. One person asked nicely, I had zero issues. Another person was pushing and kicking my seat, so I called the flight attendant to intervene. Sorry, but if I buy the ticket and the seat is built to recline, I'm reclining. If you don't like it, next time buy the bulkhead seat.

  9. Paddy Guest

    I had an experience on Virgin premium where the seat behind wedged his knees up against my chair so I couldn't recline, I thought my seat was broken so called the cabin crew who saw what was happening straight away. he argued for a bit but the crew were great and said if you don't allow other people to recline you can't recline either.
    Did Malaysian economy this year and they wouldn't allow seats...

    I had an experience on Virgin premium where the seat behind wedged his knees up against my chair so I couldn't recline, I thought my seat was broken so called the cabin crew who saw what was happening straight away. he argued for a bit but the crew were great and said if you don't allow other people to recline you can't recline either.
    Did Malaysian economy this year and they wouldn't allow seats to be reclined until after the meal services had been completed, the CC were very strict about it worked really well!

  10. D3Kingg Guest

    I’m in a bulkhead seat 90% of the time. I recline my seat a quarter of the way back. I’ll recline about halfway back then slowly back up .

  11. Eskimo Guest

    The whole country couldn't figure out is abortion right or privilege what do you expect from an airplane seat.

  12. vlcnc Guest

    Reclining your seat is a right. Everyone can do it in economy, and if you're on a long-haul flight it is absolutely appropriate to get comfortable. I've been on flights where people prevent you reclining by somehow wedging the seat and it is really not on or ok. You often then see them reclining their seat on to someone behind them - it is just flat out selfish and rude. And whilst I do think...

    Reclining your seat is a right. Everyone can do it in economy, and if you're on a long-haul flight it is absolutely appropriate to get comfortable. I've been on flights where people prevent you reclining by somehow wedging the seat and it is really not on or ok. You often then see them reclining their seat on to someone behind them - it is just flat out selfish and rude. And whilst I do think you should avoid confrontation, sometimes you have to call people's behaviour out if they are being a pri‎ck and relying on you to be too polite to get away with it. Civility should never be at all costs.

  13. yoloswag420 Guest

    Hilarious that Ben is giving his opinion on this when he literally only flies first and business everywhere. Really screams out of touch.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Hilarious that someone is calling other people out of touch when a lot of domestic First and European Business actually faces this issue.
      Really screams lack of knowledge.

      You're like a person who thinks the world is flat because no one who fell of the edge of the world is alive to tell the story.

    2. yoloswag420 Guest

      I would say it's hilarious how dumb you are, but it's actually kind of sad that someone like can exist.

      Ben literally brags in his article about not having to fly economy: "I’m fortunate to generally not fly long hauls or redeyes in economy".

      Ben does not live in Europe, so he isn't flying European business class on a recurring basis. And this isn't a problem in domestic FC compared to the tight space...

      I would say it's hilarious how dumb you are, but it's actually kind of sad that someone like can exist.

      Ben literally brags in his article about not having to fly economy: "I’m fortunate to generally not fly long hauls or redeyes in economy".

      Ben does not live in Europe, so he isn't flying European business class on a recurring basis. And this isn't a problem in domestic FC compared to the tight space of economy.

      Please use that tiny peanut sized brain of yours before typing out this kind of drivel.

    3. Charles Member

      @eskimo this is a troll account, easier not to engage. You can tell it's a troll account because of the personal insults.

    4. yoloswag420 Guest

      You must be Eskimo's alt account pretending they weren't the one that started the personal insults.

      Everyone is begging you to stop typing because of how embarassing it is for you.

    5. Ted Guest

      Did delta end up keeping their limited recline on Airbus 320? I was on it the other day and it seems quite significant (definitely closer to a 4” recline)

  14. Gary Guest

    Point the air nozzle at the persons head...havent heard that one before but thanks for the tip.

    1. Trey Guest

      I love air nozzle; bring it on! Fresh air from 30,000 ft! That's the only reason I was able to take off mask (in '22) during cruise.

    2. Eskimo Guest

      @Trey

      I think most cruises are at sea level.

  15. Glen Guest

    I wish all airlines took away the recline option.

  16. guisun Gold

    I never recline on a non overnight flight out of courtesy to the person behind. If this what is has been coming to, where the people behind feel they are entitled to forbid the person ahead from reclining, or using ac nozzles like a juvenile. Then I guess they are not deserving of any courtesy.

  17. George Romey Guest

    I'd rather pay higher airfares and be treated like a human being. But most people think they should be able to fly to Orlando for $79 so here we are.

    1. Charles Member

      The higher airfares still exist. You can fly in premium economy for what economy used to cost, can't you?

  18. Dean Guest

    I'm not acknowledging the person behind me if I'm going to recline, they have no say in the matter. However, if I see almost no one has reclined, I take it as if we have all made an unwritten agreement not to recline and I will go along with it. Which is fine on 1-2 hour flights, but I am noticing a trend of this happening on 3-4 hour flights recently and I have broken...

    I'm not acknowledging the person behind me if I'm going to recline, they have no say in the matter. However, if I see almost no one has reclined, I take it as if we have all made an unwritten agreement not to recline and I will go along with it. Which is fine on 1-2 hour flights, but I am noticing a trend of this happening on 3-4 hour flights recently and I have broken the unwritten agreement once or twice.

    PS If you need to use a laptop, you shouldn't be flying in economy.

    1. David Diamond

      I've found myself in situations where economy is literally the only seats being sold for the time I want. And I know plenty of people who don't earn big pay checks but still do important work.

      Thanks being a total jerk about what people should or shouldn't do when they fly economy, instead of just being a normal human being and spending 2 seconds of your (no doubt very important, even though you are also...

      I've found myself in situations where economy is literally the only seats being sold for the time I want. And I know plenty of people who don't earn big pay checks but still do important work.

      Thanks being a total jerk about what people should or shouldn't do when they fly economy, instead of just being a normal human being and spending 2 seconds of your (no doubt very important, even though you are also in economy, because clearly you're not like the rest of the people) time to give them a heads up.

    2. Mike Guest

      Dean. You're a jerk.
      1. Courtesy is a thing. As are manners. People say "sorry" and "excuse me" and "thank you" even when the other party (as you put it) "has no say in the matter". Do you ever say "sorry" or "excuse me" when you need to go to go past a fellow passenger getting in or out of your seat? Extend the same courtesy to the person behind.
      2. To borrow...

      Dean. You're a jerk.
      1. Courtesy is a thing. As are manners. People say "sorry" and "excuse me" and "thank you" even when the other party (as you put it) "has no say in the matter". Do you ever say "sorry" or "excuse me" when you need to go to go past a fellow passenger getting in or out of your seat? Extend the same courtesy to the person behind.
      2. To borrow a phrase from you book - you don't have a say what class I should or should not fly in with my laptop. Some of us are trying to get somewhere in life through hard work- I understand this may be foreign to you, but acknowledging others can be surprisingly helpful. (Not even going to mention the fact that there are many routes, in Europe as well as North America that do not offer any real premium class pitch-wise)

  19. Redacted Guest

    This is kind of silly, no? As much as it sucks when the person in front reclines their seat, they have done *absolutely nothing wrong*. And they certainly don’t need my blessing to start reclining it.

    If it really bothers you, get exit aisle or bulkhead.

  20. Jacob Guest

    I’ll do what I want when I want damnit. This is America.

  21. 305 Guest

    Really? This engagement farming stupidity article again?

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      But it got you engaged. You are always free to ignore these engagement farming stupidity articles:-)

  22. jfhscott Guest

    “Airlines are at fault for making seats tighter”

    Indeed, pfffttt.

    It has been over 20 years now, but around 2001 AA yanked a bunch of seats out and heavily marketed that they had "more room in coach". Consumers, by and large, continued to go to expedia or orbitz and buy the cheapest fare or best itinerary.

    I do not fault the industry for listening to what the consumer values.

    1. Jim Guest

      This. This is the thing. The sheer number of people who buy airfare based on fare alone, means that - with apologies to Ed Bastian who thinks otherwise - airlines must act as if they have a commoditized product. And if your product is commoditized, your business plan has to be delivering it most efficiently.

    2. Jason Guest

      I'd be more sympathetic to this argument if extra-legroom seats were usually available at a premium that was not much more than the reduced seat density (some extra premium OK to account for foregone ancillary fee revenue).

  23. NSS Guest

    Using an airplane bathroom. Right or privilege?

    If the airlines didn’t want me to recline they’d remove the feature.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      "If the airlines didn’t want me to recline they’d remove the feature."

      I always hated this kind of argument.

      If the airlines didn’t want me to crash they’d remove the seatbelts.

      If the airlines didn’t want me to smoke they’d remove the ashtrays.

      If the public didn’t want a mass shooting they’d remove the gun.

  24. Jim Guest

    I concur with the premises at the beginning: If recline is installed, it's acceptable to use; and that people should not be dickwads [technical term].

    I, myself, will generally only recline during "sleeping hours" because I find it uncomfortable when I'm awake. But if the person in front of me wants to lurch their seat back 3 seconds after the wheels leave the runway - well, that's on them, and, as it turns out, they are not me.

  25. Daniel from Finland Guest

    That's what the button is there for. In economy, I put my seat upright for meal service as I regard that as common courtesy, but other than that, I will keep it reclined and ask an FA to intervene whenever the pax behind me starts kicking my seatback.

  26. Never In Doubt Guest

    Engagement farming: blog imperative or useless chaff?

  27. Pal Guest

    Yeah, it's weird how people expect others to adhere to their own unwritten honor codes, Reminds me of drivers that get mad when I drive to the front of an ending lane instead of waiting in a massive line of stopped traffic. Not my fault you want to unnecessarily inconvenience yourself, why would you think everyone else should too?

    1. JustinB Member

      If people actually understood how traffic works they would all do what you do! It is actually more efficient as a whole to use every inch of available roadway rather than lining up and wasting space.

    2. Eskimo Guest

      For people to think it's fair, you have to dumb down to the lowest intelligent denominator.

      Why do you think politicians thrive.

    3. D3kingg Guest

      @Pal @Justin B

      If I could punch both of you shmucks thru my phone I would. Good luck having someone let you in.

    4. AD Diamond

      Actually, @Justin, as an engineer who has worked with traffic models, I can tell you that you are absolutely wrong. If everyone merged over before the slowdown, there wouldn't be a slow down. YOU driving to the end and then merging in is what causes the backup. You are the problem that creates the merge and that creates the traffic.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

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JustinB Member

If people actually understood how traffic works they would all do what you do! It is actually more efficient as a whole to use every inch of available roadway rather than lining up and wasting space.

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Pakmann2k Guest

Here is a different way to look at it, the seat was designed to be sat in, in a reclined position. They have to be set upright so you can maneuver into the row for boarding and deplaning. Landing and takeoff, they have to be upright in case of emergency so you can get out quickly. Other than that, reclined is the way they designed these seats for you to sit in. To put this into perspective, many airlines limit the recline angle to 5 degrees, the same back angle provided on NYC subway seats.

1
yoloswag420 Guest

I would say it's hilarious how dumb you are, but it's actually kind of sad that someone like can exist. Ben literally brags in his article about not having to fly economy: "I’m fortunate to generally not fly long hauls or redeyes in economy". Ben does not live in Europe, so he isn't flying European business class on a recurring basis. And this isn't a problem in domestic FC compared to the tight space of economy. Please use that tiny peanut sized brain of yours before typing out this kind of drivel.

1
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