Reclining Your Airplane Seat: Right Or Privilege?

Filed Under: Advice

I feel like some debates are simply never settled. Nearly nine years ago I wrote a post about whether reclining your seat on an airplane is a right or a privilege. It’s a controversial topic, especially as airlines keep squeezing more seats onto planes.

Given that it has been many years, I figured it’s time to address this again. This is partly prompted by Christopher Elliott’s silly story (as usual) about seat recline. This is the guy who yearns for the days of a regulated airline industry, and who asks whether frequent flyer programs should be banned because they’re “elitist.” In this particular case he argues that people don’t have the right to recline their seats on planes.

I will just share my overall thoughts on reclining seats on planes, and I’m curious to hear what you guys think. I won’t address Elliott’s individual claims, because, well, responding to anything he writes is sort of like this:

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.

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

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, kindly explain 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

Avoid Confrontation At All Costs

This should go without saying, but given how often we hear stories about people being removed from planes, I’ll say it anyway. 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 — where one person wants to sleep, and the person behind them wants to work on their laptop, for example.

Delta is a customer centered airline, and they recently reduced seat recline on their A320s without completely eliminating it, and it’s not a bad choice, in my opinion.

Bottom Line

As far as I’m concerned seat recline is a right and not a privilege. However, like everything else in the world, we’re better off if we’re considerate of one another.

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.

I think where Elliott and I differ is that I believe the best way to handle most things in life is to just be reasonable and to not be a jerk. Elliott’s approach is to instead call for a ban on just about everything.

Seats are getting smaller? The airline industry should go back to regulation! Some people are inconsiderate when reclining? It’s not a right anymore! Some people don’t get value out of frequent flyer programs? They’re scams and should be ended!

At least that’s my take…

Where do you stand on seat recline etiquette?

  1. Not this again… You’re right, it will never be settled but there is a VERY simple answer that I never see when this comes up: just be a nice/polite person and recline slowly and not necessarily all the way. No one will ever have a problem with you or that if you are polite about it. Mystery solved.

    I have never in my life had an altercation when reclining my seat and I always recline, even on a short 45 min NYC-BOS segment.

  2. Can’t wait until all airlines set recline at a fixed level. Nothing worse than a DYKWIA going full recline into what little personal space we already have. Don’t be inconsiderate. Don’t do it!

  3. The seat maps are readily available and while some may have to pay, there is ample opportunity to pick your poison….including reclining options and those in front on you….as well as including other transit altogether

  4. When I fly economy, I’m one of those people who introduce myself to the people around me, including the people sitting in front of me (even though I’m an introvert.) I do kindly tell them to inform me before htey recline so I can at least prepare myself for it (put my ipad/laptop away, etc.) and also tell them to please put their seat upright again during meal service as it’s hard to eat a meal when the person in front of you is reclined. That’s all I ask. I agree with you it’s all about communication and politeness and being reasonable.

    I’ll admit though that if the person in front of me reclines their seat, I will then inform the person behind me that I will also be reclining my seat. I wonder if it’s a domino effect.

  5. Disappointed with you for bothering to write about this. USA TODAY can be forgiven because it’s their job to run articles for social media attention like “is tipping good?” or the perennial favorite “what if the person sitting next to me on an airplane is wide?”. But at this point I genuinely expect better from travel blogs than to waste column inches on pablum.

  6. As someone who is 6 feet 8inches (203cm) tall, I feel that reclining is more obnoxious to the people behind you than beneficial to yourself. I understand reclining when on a redeye, but otherwise I make it a personal habit to not recline, despite occasionally being in domestic first class. The one other time I will break this rule, is if in a seat with a hard back, so reclining does not affect others. Lastly, the statement that leg room is not reduced while reclining is incorrect. Many times in my life, I have had people recline directly into my knees. There might be less than 2 inches difference, but it could be the difference of having my knees a few CM away from their seat, or having my knees dug into their back. I know that I will never be comfortable flying, but I do what I can to make it as pleasurable as possible for myself and others.

  7. When you are 6’4 (1.95) and the passanger in front of you who recline his seat is 5’2 (1.60) and he doesn’t care, then you know how stupid people can be.

  8. I will only recline my seat if there’s no one sitting behind me…which is pretty rare with how full most flights are.

  9. Ditto on the “I’m tall and get really annoyed when people in front of me recline” idea. There simply isn’t enough room to recline, so doing it is inconsiderate and impolite when someone is behind you. Recliners may gain a small amount of comfort, but if they cause a large discomfort to the person behind them, it’s not ok. Empty seat or a child behind you? Go nuts. Just please don’t crush my poor, already dysfunctional knees.

  10. If you’re 6’4” or 6’8” You’re probably going to have a bad time in economy either way even if the seat in front of you is empty. Pay the extra $25-50 or so to be on bulkhead/exit row.

    As for me, I only recline in long haul when I literally need to doze off. Usually right after meal service. Seat up at all times otherwise.

  11. There’s absolutely no reason to recline in standard economy. Period. The marginal amount of comfort gained is hugely outweighed by the discomfort it causes the person behind. Extra legroom sections? Sure – maybe. If done with respect. But nothing worse than the jerk in front of you reclining rapidly and full force, especially during meal service on a long haul flight. I get that it’s called economy for a reason. But I personally enjoying drinking my plonk and eating my wilted lettuce and mushy pasta without using tiny T-Rex arms.

  12. Paul and Kyle have obviously never had back pain

    If they did, then they would know that height is not the sole determinant in whether or not a person is obnoxious or stupid

    I rarely recline, partially because almost no seats recline anymore. (I can’t remember the last seat I had that reclined more than 1 inch) partly because I know some people become upset about it

    However, airline seats are a unique sort of hell for me, due in large part to the weird angle of the seat back, made 1000x worse if it has a thick headrest.
    This forces me into a slouch.
    Within minutes my right arm goes numb and after an hour I’m in agony

    Reclining a seat can sometimes be helpful, sometimes not

    I’ve resorted to bringing a lumbar pillow which causes a pseudo recline
    This is not possible on a plane with 28-29 inches of pitch

    Thus, I avoid all such planes
    I mainly buy extra legroom or J or F seats

    But I’m fortunate to be able to do this
    If I were a middle class traveler I would likely recline in a coach seat

    And I would be neither stupid or obnoxious

    Regardless, this is a dying debate
    Are any new planes coming with recline?

  13. Considering that reclining mostly doesn’t do any good, I pretty much never do it and I’m in favour of airlines removing this feature (quite common with new planes in Europe).

    Reclining doesn’t really make the flying in economy class that much comfortable, it’s mostly short people and kids doing it just to enlarge their space, and being a tall person I can totally understand that it can be a nuisance behind me. I have a simple equation that the more the seat is reclined, the more likely my knees will hit it and the person in front me probably feels it.
    (I do book exit seat whenever possible but the options within Europe are rather limited for anything else)

  14. If the seat reclines, I have the right to do it. It’s that simple. Otherwise just make them so they don’t recline. That way I won’t be able to do it and the person in front of me won’t be able to do it as well.

  15. Some months ago was on a BA short haul from LHR to Oslo connecting off a long haul from the U.S. I was tired and was sitting in row 1. A guy behind me in row 2. He had the seat empty next to him.

    I reclined to sleep. Upon doing so he started brushing his paper against my head. Soon he was pretending to cough on my head. After a bit he started using a book and resting it with it touching my head while mumbling. I asked him if there was an issue and could he please stop touching my head.

    He went into a rant about my reclining. I pointed to the empty aisle seat next to him if it was so difficult and suggested that he might consider a tablet in the future for reading – or perhaps flying a private jet if other passengers disturbing him with reclining was such a painful experience.

    I tend not to recline in a full coach cabin out of courtesy. But there was plenty of room on the flight for him to move. Further, many passengers were coming in off of long haul flights and deserved to recline for sleep.

    It was very close to a full out fight. Only when I stood up to confront him did he back down and go quiet.

  16. I paid for the right to control the seat I paid for and the passenger in front of me paid for the right to recline their seat with their seat controls. I also have the right to turn my overhead cold air blower as far forward as possible, even if the cold air hits the reclining passenger’s head with full force while they are reclined back.

  17. Recently we were stuck on the tarmac for two hours at PHL and the gentleman in front of me asked if it was okay if he reclined…I told him yes and thanked him for asking. That’s how it’s done folks

  18. Quite simple really!

    To avoid any confrontation or annoyance I always book the exit Isle row.

    This means that the person in front can’t recline into me.

  19. Interesting that the discussion and the blame are always assigned to the passenger. How about placing some of this on the airlines who choose seat pitch and legroom at such a minimum.

    I tried to work with people to propose legislation a couple years ago where legroom minima would be tied to flight length ( 10 hours, 32″ but this went absolutely nowhere.

    We forget on blogs like these that the overwhelming majority of people fly Y– and while it’s great to have all aisle access flat beds in business class, economy class should have at least marginally comfortable basics.

  20. It’s much simpler than this. If the person behind you is reclining their seat, go ahead and recline yours. If the person in front of you reclines their seat, tell the person behind you that you have to recline your seat as well because you now have no space. In both of these scenarios you will not get a complaint.

  21. Agree with your position on this but I must note that without fail it is always a 5’2″ 90 lb. petite woman who thrust that seat back the moment wheels are up! I’m 6’1″ and rarely recline in economy.

  22. The only time I would consider reclining is during long haul flights where I intend to nap or sleep. On short flights I don’t bother. When I do, I never do it during meals or even drink service. I do admit that I tend to be more conscious of the person is tall. If it was a person that was smaller, I have less hesitation. If it matters, I’m 6’2″.

  23. I actually think this a totally reasonable topic for this type of blog. And I agree with your take on this. Generally I will recline my seat a bit if I don’t think it will bother the person in back of me.

  24. If “I’m tall so you can’t recline” applies, then does “I’m overweight so you need to leave the arm rest up” also apply?
    I fully agree courtesy is important in these situations, but those who feel strongly about space constraints need to focus on the carriers, not their fellow passengers, for relief.

  25. The four ruptured disks in my lower back mean I have to recline if I want to be able to stand up again at the destination.

  26. How about a simple glance behind before reclining more than a couple of inches? Not in the name of courtesy, as the “it’s my seat, my right to [FILL IN BLANK]” type of passengers would undoubtedly laugh. Just some common sense so your seat back doesn’t hit any passengers reaching for their underseat bag.

  27. You’all must be on airlines I’m not on or flying in the privileged section. My experience is that the seat back moves maybe 2-3 inches, has nothing to do with legroom.

    I feel it’s my privilege to adjust my seat, I paid for that space.

  28. I’m 6’8″ so economy is a struggle for me. Period.

    My worst was when I was flying from Heathrow to Miami and the chap in front of me had a broken seat. Which meant he almost had a our flat bed and I had 9 hours of no table, no ife and a man’s head in my lap. But the worst was how even if I moved a tiny bit he would give me a dirty look and when I politely asked if he would put his chair back he told me to f**k off then pretended he didn’t speak English.

    So it was a shame when I spilt coke on him cause I couldn’t use my table.

  29. Its your seat, you paid for it, if there’s a recline its up to you. Person behind has no recourse. Live with it. So over these people who go on about declining people right to recline.

  30. While I personally try not to recline my seat in economy, what personally irks me is when the person in front of me fully reclines their seat, and then proceeds to sit forward for the rest of the flight and not take advantage of the recline at all.

    My remedy for this situation is to wait for said person to go to the bathroom, and when they do, I quietly reach around and push their recline button so that the seat returns partially or fully to upright. Most of the time, when the person returns to their seat, they rarely notice the change, and I am a contented traveler.

    I know, it’s a bit petty, but it works.

  31. I’m 6’3” and reclining passengers absolutely impact my legroom.

    I understand that it’s their right to recline, but it’s also my right to place my knees in the back of their seat and use the seat back pocket to store as many things as I possibly can fit.

  32. I am 5’0″ tall and almost always recline my seat a little. I have had back pain since I was 18 (I’m 63 now). Even just a little bit of recline helps my back. I recline slowly and always put my seat back in upright position for drinks and meals.

  33. did u run out of stuff to write about Ben?

    obviously everyone can recline whenevr they want.

    I noticed youve been writing “in my opinion” 8298278981 times per article in the last few….

    dont let the haters get to you. no need to justify, its your blog.

  34. It is neither a right or a privilege. It is simply something a chair with a recline button can do. If this is a major issue why can’t you do something about it yourself and figure it out? Are you incapable of solving this? You do not have the right or privilege to impose your hang ups on me or others.

  35. I paid for the motherf***ing recline, and I will motherf***ing use it. If you don’t like other people reclining into you, go fly spirit/frontier/allegiant or buy your own private jet.

  36. It take me time and effort to get comfortably arranged and belted in for takeoff. Everyone who says simply “make eye contact” or “turn around and ask” before reclining must have rubber necks and can somehow see over the top of their tall seat back. Which makes me wonder if they are giving advice that they themselves never follow.

  37. I don’t know why tall people think it’s odd that short people recline. So, as a short person let me explain. The angle of an unreclined airline seat is hell for us. Our heads hit the part of the seat that is designed to support your neck, pushing our heads forward at an uncomfortable angle. In addition the shorter you are, the more acute the angle of the seat feels even though it is the same. If that confuses you, draw yourself a little picture. My arms frequently start to go numb after minutes in that position, my neck hurts and then I get a headache. So, an unreclined coach seat is absolute misery for me and the minute the 20K ft chime goes off, I recline at least a little to get some relief. My solution is to buy F, but as someone else noted, most people can’t make that choice.

    Sometimes, especially in F, the headrest can be pushed up above my head and I can lean my head at a normal angle. Of course, this frequently results in the idiot behind me who grabs me seat to get up shoving the headrest down on my head. Frankly, if we want to complain about things, can we complain about people who can’t get out of their seats without grabbing the seats in front? If you need help getting up use the armrests on your seat, don’t pull yourself up with the back of my seat, invariably after I’ve just fallen asleep.

    So, next time you think it’s offensive that a short person reclines their seat because you’re tall, consider that they may be in just as much pain as you are.

  38. I had an old man freak out on me for reclining from CPH to LHR

    It still makes me upset to think about it. And the fact that it still makes me upset to think about, also makes me upset.

    He wasn’t using a laptop, he had ample legroom.

    He threw a tantrum like a baby.

    The recline issue will be solved by a simple airline policy one way or the other.

    Working this out on a one on one basis isn’t going to work.

  39. Very long time reader, first time poster.

    The only time I have ever had a problem with a reclining situation: I was in Economy long-haul, and was seated in front of a very well known travel reviewer/commentator and his wife. Approaching the time for breakfast service (but not at the point where the cart had even been rolled out or anything indicative of imminent service), his wife actually shook my seat to get me to return my seat to upright!

    I am not a hardcore seat recliner – this was simply a long overnight flight. I was amazed at the rudeness – no-one has the right to behave like that on an aircraft, least of all someone whose travel is very much in the public eye. Obviously no point even remotely considering a chat with the crew, as they were kissing the couple’s rear the entire flight in order to get a good report when/if he wrote it up for his newspaper.

    Amazing what a seat recline button does to people.

  40. As a tall person, i prefer people to recline. With quite a lot of aircraft (especially long haul), when the passenger in front of me reclines (and me as well), i gain a few cm of leg space, which allows me to stretch out my legs just a bit.

    Quite often when you recline the top goes back, however the seat part goes slightly forward… Funnily enough i even once asked the row ahead of me to recline an empty seat 🙂

  41. Totally agree with Ben. If there’s a recline button then reclining the seat is a right. However, during the meal service I guess it’s also good manners (not sure if should become or it is mandatory) to have the seat in front upright. So far in over over thirty years of flying I never had such an issue. During the meal service the passenger in front has almost always retreated the seat upright and twice that didn’t happen autonomously, when asked it was done with a smile.

  42. @ Joey
    “I’m one of those people who introduce myself to the people around me, including the people sitting in front of me”

    You are one of my nightmares. I don’t want to meet random people on a plane. I’ve put my noise-cancelling headphones on for a reason.

    And some posters on here question why some of us love the privacy we get from seats with doors…?

  43. I ALWAYS recline (slowly) immediately as the wheels lift off the runway. I’ve never really had an issue. If the airline doesn’t want me reclining, don’t sell me a seat with that capability.
    But interesting to hear other people’s take on this issue.

  44. A couple of important things that affect the passengers behind a reclined seat not mentioned in this article. Firstly, it can ruin the viewing angle of the screen, especially for those in a back row of seats that do not recline and secondly, the difficulty it creates for someone in a window seat to get to the aisle, especially if they are old or have a minor disability.

  45. I’m very tall, so when you recline the bag of the seat hit my knees immediately. I run into situations were the back cannot recline because my knees prevent that. Yeah nice just go banging to your seat back maybe that helps. I had a situation where I went to the restroom and when I came back the person in front of me was fully reclined. I could seriously not get into my seat again. So, people keep that in mind when flying economy next time……

  46. I don’t care how polite you are. Reclining your seat invades the already extremely limited space I have.

  47. Please stop doing posts like this unless your opinion changes. We’ve all heard all the arguments already. .

  48. I would like to see a discussion about the space BELOW your seat.
    1. If you paid for your seat, you own the space below it too, right?
    2. You should have the right to fold your legs and kick your feet under your seat into any carry-on luggage someone may have placed there. Or into the feet of someone from behind who is inconsiderately occupying the space under your seat that you paid for.
    3. Indeed, you should even have the right to place your own carry on under your own seat.

  49. For me the most important issue is whether the seat back mounted entertainment screen can be angled out or not. With some airlines it can, with some it can’t. That makes all the difference. If the passenger in front of you wants to recline, but you prefer not to, and your screen angle can’t be adjusted, it can be a frustrating experience on those rare occasions when there’s actually something you want to watch ! From recent memory, Qatar is good, Virgin is lousy.

  50. I recently was on a Virgin flight in economy and there it wasn’t the top part going backwards then the bottom part going forward so it was that when you reclined your seat you lost the leg space and the person behind gained.

  51. @Z-man

    In most Economy and Domestic First seats, the space below your seat belongs to the person behind you. The space directly behind your seat belongs to you.

    If you want to test this, try kicking the person behind you’s personal item out from under your seat. You will lose that argument with the flight attendant. Try leaning back into a tall person, and the flight attendant will be on your side.

    You paid for the space under the seat in front of you as a storage cubby, and the space directly behind your seat as optional reclining space (or for seats where reclining moves the seat forward, the space behind your reclined seat as space as optional unreclining space).

  52. This is all relatively easy and straight forward. The big question is who controls the window shade when it is level with the seat back of the seat you are sitting in?

  53. “ 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”

    Ben, this is simply NOT TRUE. I think you’ve spent too much time in first class and exit rows! But perhaps it’s just due to your body shape. I am not especially tall at 6’1”, but a greater proportion of my height than average is between my waist and my knees. When someone reclines in 30” pitch Y, the seat back pushes into my knees. Reclining my seat does not move my butt further away from the seat in front of me, it only bends my body at the waist, so it does nothing to help alleviate the squeeze. Is this explanation clear enough?

    For what it’s worth, I still believe that one is entitled to recline one’s seat. Just as I’m entitled to keep the armrest down when an obese passenger sits next to me.

  54. @The nice Paul

    I’m pretty sure the height of those doors wouldn’t stop people like @Joey who wants to introduce himself. Just proves that these doors give you a false sense of privacy and you fell for the marketing gimmick. At least if you carefully read @Joey comments, he said when he flies economy. Lucky you.

  55. @ Eskimo

    No-one has ever — ever — put their head over my door to introduce themselves. So I’d say on the basis of experience that those doors are pretty effective rather than a gimmick.

    I’m a sample of one, and maybe my angry glowering face puts them off but, alas, that face-like-thunder doesn’t seem to work when I’m sat next to chatty Sallys in seats with no privacy (and yes, sometimes I fly Eco class too!). Serial self-introducers seem to have little sense of personal space.

    Then again, I’ve spent decades travelling on packed London Underground trains where everyone pretends they are all alone. It’s the only way to make the experience bearable.

  56. Simple–either the Spirit approach, or the shell seats (as Cathay temporarily used). Both ways, a tall person does not pay any penalty (and actually gets somewhat MORE room, with a shell).

    Either that, or fly business/first/private…

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