Is reclining your seat on an airplane a right or a privilege?

Here’s a fun topic brought up by Road Warriorette today. Is reclining your seat on an airplane a right or a privilege? Yep, that’s the new poll question over on the top right of the blog (great timing, as I needed a new one).

I probably have a different approach towards seat recline than most. I happen to think that reclining your seat on an airplane is a right. There’s a reason the button is on your seat, and certainly everyone (except possibly the person in the last row) has the same “right” in that regard. But at the same time, I’m the guy that doesn’t recline my seat in coach on daytime flights. Ever. It’s just my little way of trying to be courteous. Do I expect everyone else to give me the same courtesy? Nah, because I think they’re perfectly entitled to recline their seat all they want.

Oddly enough, I think the problem is even worse in first class, where the recline is much greater than in coach while the pitch is only marginally better (at least compared to Economy Plus), meaning space can be very tight if you have your laptop out and the person in front of you is reclined all the way. In first class I almost always have my seat reclined all the way, except during a meal service. My biggest pet peeve, though, are the people that “latch” onto the seats in front of them and shake them (almost) violently as they get up. Garrr!

What say you?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel


  1. I consider it a right, if handled courteously. The passenger in front of me does not have the right to slam his seatback into my knees. The passenger in front of me does not have the right to break my laptop screen.

    I look behind me before reclining, if I do at all, to make sure I won’t be doing either of the above to the passenger in the next row.

    Sometimes, the person in front of me reclining is just fine. When it’s not, I try to ask politely if they’ll move their seat back up partway.

  2. Agreed on ALL counts.

    I actually had words once when seated in Row 16 on the 757. I was really tired and had been sleeping on and off. The three people in the row behind started making rude comments about how I had all that leg room and shouldn’t need to recline. (I still don’t see the connection there!) I kindly pointed out that when they flew 100k per year, they too could sit in those seats and decide whether or not to recline.

  3. I agree with your pet peeve, I hat it too when people do that especially when I’m trying to catch some ZZzzzz

  4. This is a great question. I think it is a right, but i agree it’s best to show some courtesy to the flyer behind you, as you seem to do. I am opposed to those “Knee Defender” type devices that prevent the person in front of you from declining at alln.

    I too get annoyed when people grab and “latch” my seat so forcefully when standing. If it’s a mother with child, or an elderly person I certainly understand, but if someone is so obese they cannot stand up without grabbing and shaking my seat perhaps it’s time to slim down for health’s sake?

  5. I try to be courteous of the people behind me – before I even partially recline my seatback, I will turn to see if they are using the tray table or perhaps their laptop. If they are, I won’t recline the seat. If they are not, I will recline – although not usually all the way back – just enough to take the pressure off of my lower spine from the otherwise pretty uncomfortable seats. I even do this when in First.

    We were flying the other day on an A319 in Row 2. Lunch service was just about over and I was not quite finished eating when all of a sudden the guy in Row 1 just slams his seat back almost hitting me in the head (as I was sitting a bit more upright still eating). When my seatmate saw this he very politely asked the ‘gentleman’ if he could please put his seat up until I was finished. After a glare and a lot of muttering, he did so. We did let him know when we were finished so that he could recline to his heart’s content.

    The problem with reclining in Coach is, if you are in a window seat and need to use the toilet,and the seats in front are reclined it is almost impossible to exit the row…. thus, sometimes you do have to latch on to the seat in front to keep from falling over. I’ll apologize now. 😉

  6. In coach, my knees often are right up against the seat in front of me. And this is before they recline. So most of the time the person in front of me can’t recline even if they want to.

  7. I never recline my seat. In my opinion, the only people that should recline their seat in coach are people with back problems and other disabilities.

    My sister hates people who recline their seat with a passion. Whenever the person in front of our reclines their seat she first, politely asks them to put their seat back up. They usually so something along the lines of “Okay, sorry” in a pissed off tone. If they refuse to put their seat back up, that’s when my sister gets angry. This is why I try to avoid taking flights with my sister.

  8. We may need another post/vote, but these are much peevier to me:

    1) Armrest hogs. 6 arms; 4 thin slices of metal to share in coach. I think the rule should be middle seat gets the 2.

    2) Women playing with long hair in seat in front me. Rises to #1 during meal/bev service.

    3) People bashing my side with their bags as they go by during boarding when I’m sitting in an aisle seat. Can that many people be that oblivious? Yup.

  9. On a recent flight from Cairo to Frankfurt I was asked by the flight attendant to raise my seat back up so the guy behind me could eat his breakfast. It was 4:30am and I was not eating and was in the exit seat already reclined and about ready to fall asleep. I fulfilled her request, but after he finished I reclined again and then felt the continuous bumps on my seat as the gentleman behind me then felt it was no longer my right to recline since the flight attendant bought him some time. I fill it is a right like you said or there would not be the option.

  10. Its absolutely my right to reline, and I do at the earliest opportunity on every flight, because I find a un-reclined seat to be the most uncomfortable thing ever. of course I check to make sure I don’t crush a laptop or something, but if I ever sit in front of someone like Ben’s(commenter #8, not Lucky) sister, I think I’d have a full blown argument on my hands.

    I had alway assume that when I pay for a seat, that includes that few cubic inches of space where my seat could potentially recline. But dose anyone know what exactly is the “law” on this subject? If two people at the two extremes of this argument come together and just had to take it as far as possible, what exactly would happen?

  11. My thoughts on reclining:

    Overnight flights:

    You absolutely have a right to recline, with the only possible exception during the regularly scheduled meal service. My theory is that it is simply assumed that _everyone_ will recline to sleep, so you are not impacting anyone else any more or less than you are being impacted.

    Daytime flights:

    I suffer from a bit of “reclining-guilt”, but I would say that reclining is a right, but far more restricted by common courtesey during the day time. My typical course of action:

    1) If the person behind me is reclining, then I recline fully as well sans guilt.

    2) If I am going to recline, I typically casually check if the person behind me is a 8 ft tall NBA player, or is working on a giant laptop, etc. If I think that I am going to cause them undue harm, then I refrain from doing so.

    3) Almost always in F/C and sometimes in Economy, I’ll recline only part of the way. Even a couple degrees of difference can net an improvement for me without crushing the person behind me

    4) Sometimes one just has to sleep (A recent 7am LAX-IAD leg in C comes to mind when I had already been awake for 4 hours). In those rare cases, I do just recline and hope for the best

    The only recent time I’ve become upset about someone reclining INTO me was on a A320 from SFO to IAD in F. I was in 2B and a (maybe ~20yo) kid in 1B reclined fully immediately after takeoff, and then SAT FORWARD in his seat reading a Kindle for most of the flight. That got annoying. If you are going to recline, at least make use of the space!

    -Dan (Smashr)

  12. @Dan regarding your incident on the SFO-IAD flight, I do that alot, in fact i wouldn’t be surprise if that turned out to be me sitting in front of you, as i did fly form SFO to IAD recently sitting in row one, i forgot which seat.

    I sorry about annoying you, but I think that’s sort of the whole point of this discussion, if you agree with me in saying that the area behind the seat that can be potentially reclined into rightfully belongs to the person in the front, then what dose it matter what i use it for. If I had a large house with a spare room would you be annoyed if i don’t let you use it?

    If reclining is a right, then not reclining should be seen as a favor and not something expected.

  13. I have a solution to the laptop issue — recline the second the plane is wheels up. The person behind you will never have the chance to use their laptop. I do not feel guilty for one second.

  14. I have always been a lurker on these blogs, but this subject caused me to finally post something. I absolutely think it is a right to recline. I immediately relcline my seat after takeoff if i’m in coach. Being 6’2″, I don’t have much room in airplane seats these days. I don’t recline quickly, out of respect for the person seated behind me, but I will alway relcline nonetheless. I paid for that seat and that seat includes the option to recline.

  15. @Gene-If that happened to me I would make your life miserable. I had a person do that and I asked them to put it up a litle for their well being. They refused, so I coughed and sneezed in their direction the entire flight and made sure their was no way they were getting off the flight without getting sick……

  16. Domestically I never recline (we only have a single class in the UK). Travelling in Europe I don’t recline during meals but generally do after the meal although I recline in stages so that the person behind may not notice it as much. I always have a glance to see who is behind me.

    Long haul in Y I again wouldn’t recline during meals on a day flight but would after meals or on an overnight flight. Thankfully haven’t been in Y long haul for 5 years so it’s not been an issue.

  17. In international coach (on JAL or KAL) which I fly an average of 5 times/year, I’m always woken up by the stewardess to put my seat up in order for the person in back to eat their breakfast. So I guess in asia, comfortable meals take priority over zzzz’s.

  18. @Jake it is so weird, my husband got harangued by the guy behind him not to recline his seat on a recent CAI – FRA flight. He wasn’t even that tall, just surly.

    I tend not to recline, just because I don’t really need to, and I usually sit up during mealtimes (anyway, I need to sit up straight to eat), but man, it is totally a right to recline.

    I would probably get into some serious arguments with someone who just doesn’t think people should recline. Cram it, lady.

  19. @Johnnie — With an Ambien, neck pillow and Bose headset, this wouldn’t bother me one bit. Besides, it won’t matter anyway, since I’ll be up front where you CAN recline your seat without bothering anyone.

  20. It’s not _necessarily_ rude to recline. It is beyond rude to recline your seat so that it bangs into the knees of the passenger behind you. Coach class seats offer very little room. Agreed. You buy a small space, you get a small space.

    But no one’s “right” includes an OK to bang into someone else simply because he/she is in your way.

    In your car, when the light turns green, you have “the right of way”, but if a car is stopped in the cross-street intersection, your “right of way” does not include a “right” to smash into that stopped car. Same sort of rules on a plane.

    Recline all you want, but only if you stop short of bashing into the passenger behind you. Fact is, when many passengers take their seats, their knees are already near or even in contact with the seatbacks in front of them. So, there just isn’t much, if any room for the passenger in front to recline. That’s why Knee Defenders were invented. They help people stop a seatback before it hits them in the knees.

  21. @Knee Defender – If somebody put those stupid things behind my seat to stop me from reclining I’d either call a FA or I’d just take them off myself. What a passive-aggressive device…Jeez!

  22. @Sam

    As I mentioned, I believe it is a right, but during daytime flights it is expected to be courteous about it.

    Since (especially in domestic F), you reclining fully does negatively impact me, I contend it is discourteous to spend 80% of the flight with your seat fully reclined and you not using it at all.


  23. This is the best debate ever. I’m a non-recliner no matter what time of day or night. I know I don’tlike it when someone reclines the seat in front of me (although I do think they have the right to do it) so I don’t do it to the person behind me. I’m tall and its annoying but I know what to expect when I fly. It’s great to read all these different tactics people use. I will certainly be watching for them as I fly over the holidays.

  24. It’s funny how the seat in front of me is always “broken” and won’t recline. Almost as if something shaped suspiciously like my knees are jammed into the back of them.

    You claim you have the right to recline. I say your rights end at my kneecaps.

  25. It’s a privilege. The seat also has an inflatable vest underneath it — do you put that on and inflate it whenever you want just because you paid for it? Do you pry the panels overhead open so you can play with your oxygen mask? The fact that the seat has a recline button doesn’t automatically grant you the right to use it.

  26. While I agree that reclining your seat is a “right”, I concede to the passenger behind me and their current state of “sitting position”. I would ask them, would you mind letting me know if/when you decide you want to relax.( of course ,they have someone behind them as well, in most cases).

    I hate being cramped and I don’t want others to have their space invaded, I would trade off my comfort for the benefit of another, unless I was in extreme pain, I might ask again for ‘periodic’ recline sessions.

    MY BIG question is this…. HOW did you get on the plane after having the TSA groping you beyond belief or being radiated to see your naked body stored on a government file…. and then come into the cabin of a plane and relax..

    Maybe that’s why passengers are more and more irritated!

  27. I had this occur recently. The man behind me was very tall. Not my problem. I was flying 6+ hours, with a 7 hour time change, and only 36 hours, before heading out again, to another country. I was absolutely going to sleep on the flight. I reclined, and the man said, “I’m sorry, but it’s not possible. I don’t have room for you to put your seat back”.

    “I’m sorry too, but it is possible, and I’m going to recline the seat and sleep.”

    If you know you can’t fit in a standard coach seat, your options are to make sure you have an aisle, get an exit row, or pay more for a higher class with additional space.

    He called over the flight attendant and said to her, “Excuse me. Can you instruct him to put his seat up?”. She said, “No, I can’t. You can ask him, but there is nothing I can do.”

    He already knew my answer, and thankfully, that was the last of it. But, what’s to be done with someone who decides to retaliate by kicking the seat throughout the flight?

  28. I posted a response to the legal blog claiming it is illegal to recline seats as it constitutes battery by intentionally touch the person behind you through the seat back:

    There is one thing though: The intent! When passengers recline their seats, they do not INTEND to make contact with the person behind them; and no, it cannot be proven that they know it is almost certain that they will touch that person if they recline. Most persons are not 6’4″ giants like me, and most reclined seats do not end up touching the knees of the person seated behind unless he/she is sliding forward or sitting cross-legged… which is unreasonable.

    Additionally reclining your seat, especially on long flights, is not a disposable luxury, it is a necessity to minimize the pressure on the spine that occurs from sitting up straight for extended periods. The only time a passenger should not recline their seat is during meal services. Being able to have your meals and use the full features of your seat is an inalienable right, having enough room to use your laptop, scoot forward or sit cross-legged is not.

    As for us, tall guys, airlines should be forced to find a solution for tall passengers… period. Until then I depend on the courtesy of my fellow riders, and I extend the same courtesy to the tall person behind me.

    It is our American obsession with personal space that’s the problem in most cases here, yet we happily suspend it when we ride the NYC subway or attend a rock concert. As for airplanes, it could be argued that as the “personal space” of the seat in front of me is extendable backwards by its recline, I can also compensate the decrease of my personal space by reclining backwards myself.

  29. For those who said whether it is OK to recline or not depends on the time/length of the flight, please consider that 2-hour short flight for you may be part of a 12-hour long haul flight for some other people, and it could be midnight by their biological clock because of time changes.

    For the tall/large people, I often have to make last minute travel arrangements (nature of my work) and pay for full-fare tickets. I would not purposely slam the back of my seat onto you, but if I need rest, I would not hesitate to recline. While I feel sorry that you are crammed, very few of you tall people are there to help when I cannot reach the upper shelves in a store, when I am straining to see over the hood of a rental car (when they “upgrade” me with a monster because the mid-size is not available), or trying to peek around the head of someone in front of me at the theatre.

    The bottom line is, there are advantages and disadvantages to every body shape and size. If the seats are made to recline and I need rest, I would. If you are too tall to fit in the space the airlines design, it is a problem between you and them. I never ask the person in front of my in theatre to slouch so that I can see the stage …

  30. There are actually a number of seats that cannot recline, including exit rows and seats in front of exit rows. Based on how closely spaced seats are in general, it’s clearly a safety issue having reclining at all. When someone in front reclines in coach it is often not possible to safely stand up to leave your seat.

  31. One mistake is your presumption that a person of height has the opportunity to purchase a seat with extra legroom. Not true. Often Elites get those seats for free prior to my being able to purchase a ticket. Also those seats are often the first to go on flights.

  32. I was on AF CDG-DTW last month and while having my seat reclined half way back, this rude French guy hit the top of my head and told me to put my seat up.

    I must seriously have bad luck with French people and because of this, I’m sadly starting to stereotype them fast.

  33. I’m amazed that people think they have a “right” to recline. The only thing you have a right to is a seat. You didn’t pay for the right to recline, or to use the armrest – it’s not in your contract of carriage. You only paid to have a seat.

  34. Well I am an average male 5’10” 180lbs so I rarely have an issue with this topic (I am also extremely well mannered and tolerant of other people bad manners). HOWEVER, I recently had a chance to take the side of a person being reclined into and got to watch the recliner almost go to jail. The VERY tall gentleman sitting next to me had a normal sized guy in front of him try and put his seat back. It of course hit the large guys knees and wouldn’t go back very far so he started rocking the seat into the guys knees. This went on several times over the course of 15 minutes until it almost went from words to physical violence. The police were called but I told the flight attendant that as far as I was concerned the guy next to me was basically being subjected to assault and battary with a weapon (the seat) for 2 hours. In most states that either a decent misdemeanor or in some a felony. Reclining a seat is a “right” like many other rights. You only have a right until it infringes upon other people…smoking is a perfect example…because its no longer allowed on planes because it affects the other passengers. So…in fact smoking is NOT a right and thus I would say when you have atall person behind you reclining your seat is also NOT a right.

  35. @Ash: Oh by the way in response to your absurd post…its the very FACT that you are on public transportation that makes it that much worse. I have a right to spit, but I do not have a right to spit on you whether it be on a subway or on a plane. Yes if you recline and hit the person behind you and they say nothing then your statement is accurate. As soon as they state you are touching them you have committes battary…I think in New York its a felony if it done on public transportation. Again if I spit its not a problem, if I spit and hit you accidently its gross but still not a misdemeanor or felony…if I spit in your fact after you tell me not to I have intent and therefore have committed a crime. So if the passenger behind you states you are touching them with your seat…you have committed a crime. One day this will play out in court and I think my arguement will hold true. Smoking on planes is EXACTLY the same principle and that has already played out…so it will be rude people like you that cause all seats to be fixed upright eventually because people have NO MANNERS ANYMORE.

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