Is it OK to Recline Your Airline Seat?

There has long been a debate as to whether or not it’s cool to recline your seat on a plane. It seems to be quite the divisive issue, with people either extremely pro-recline or extremely anti-recline. There are good arguments on both sides as well. Anti-recliners cite shrinking leg room and how horrible it can be for a tall person when the guy in front of them reclines his seat, effectively trapping them in their sardine can-like enclosure. Pro-recliners cite how uncomfortable the seats are and that not reclining them gives them neck and back pain. These are both very compelling arguments and I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to come to a mutual agreement on the issue. Ultimately, I think the blame for this debate lies with the airlines themselves, who are shrinking our leg room more and more by the day, it seems.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of the road on this debate. I see both sides of the argument, and I have experienced the frustrations that people on both sides of the argument have experienced. It’s no fun when you’re sitting in your seat and all of a sudden the person in front of you decides it is a good time to slam their seat backwards as abruptly as possible, not only trapping your legs in place, but also spilling the glass of red wine you had resting on your tray table all over your lap, leaving you uncomfortable, sticky, and grumpy for the remainder of the flight. Yes, this actually happened to me, and I spent the entire flight kicking the back of the horrible woman’s seat to get my revenge. Mature, I know, but she did unapologetically ruin the pants I was wearing when she knocked my red wine all over them and refused to budge for the entire flight, even to let me readjust myself and clean the wine off of me (I even asked her directly).

I’ve also been in the other position: where it’s a long-haul flight and I haven’t slept much, my neck and back are killing me, and the only minor relief within sight is to nudge that seat back a little bit. Sometimes you just have to recline the seat a little bit.

This debate often becomes heated, and I’ve even heard stories of people getting in screaming matches and fist fights over reclining seats. It’s a real issue. You don’t really want to get escorted off the plane and into police custody, I’m guessing, so it would benefit everybody involved to be polite.

I think instead of arguing about whether or not we should be reclining our airline seats at all, we should instead be discussing the etiquette of reclining your seat when you need to, but still being polite and considerate of those around us. We should all be living by the following set of rules when we’re 40,000 feet in the sky.

Rule 1: For Heaven’s sake, warn the person behind you when you’re about to recline your seat. This will avoid the spilling of red wine and coffee all over people’s clothes and will allow them to adjust their feet if necessary. Nobody likes getting suddenly trapped in an awkward position.

Rule 2: Get comfortable, but consider the comfort of the person behind you. If you’re sitting in front of an 8-year-old child, chances are they have plenty of leg room and it’s no big deal if you tilt your seat back as far as it goes. On the other hand, if a 6 foot 5 man is behind you and looks like he can barely fit in the seat, consider if reclining will cause him more pain than you would experience by keeping your seat upright.

Rule 3: Compromise. If your neck is killing you and the only relief is to recline a little but the person behind you doesn’t have much leg room, compromise with them. Maybe tilt it back just a little bit and not all the way. Explain your situation to them and ask them to let you know if you recline too far.

Rule 4: Do you really need to recline? If you’re on a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney at 2am, you most likely want to get a little sleep and it’s understandable that you should need to recline. However, if you’re only on the plane for a short trip, consider if you really need to tilt it back or if an hour in the air with an upright seat won’t kill you.

Rule 5: Look before you lie back. This goes with rule 1 of warning them. If you won’t verbally warn them, at least look to make sure you’re not going to knock a drink out of their hard or smash their knees. Sometimes reclining too abruptly can even hurt people, as they may be reaching for something under their seat when you sit back. This is especially true if a child is sitting behind you, as it’s entirely possible they might have their hand stuck right where it will get smashed when you lean back. Better to check first just to be safe.

Rule 6: Sit up straight at mealtime. If you’re on a long-haul flight, a meal will be served at some point. It’s pretty hard to eat off a tray table when the seat in front of you is reclined, so have a heart for the traveler behind you and sit your seat up straight when it’s time to eat.

Really, it all comes down to consideration for your fellow travelers. People appreciate when those around them are polite and will usually respond in kind. If you get somebody in front of you who doesn’t want to play nice, don’t get worked up, but do call them on it. Tell them your legs are trapped and ask if they will please sit up a little straighter if they don’t mind. More often than not, people will oblige. You can even sweeten the deal for them. Offer to buy them a drink if they don’t recline their seat. You never know, they might be happy to take the deal.

What do you think? Where do you stand on the recline vs. no recline debate? Do you have any horror stories from a flight you took? I would love to read about it in the comments!


11 replies »

  1. Definitely some great rules! I mean I’m completely with you and though I get both sides of the argument, I think it’s silly to be all mad at each other when we should be mad at the airline for putting money over their customers’ comfort. I am definitely a recliner, but only in overnight flights. I definitely agree to stay up straight when food is being served and eaten. I also agree to recline slowly, thinking about the person behind you. I was almost knocked in the face once when I was looking at my screen and the person decided to recline. (Though I hate people who get up using my seat as a grip even more…wth!). I have to say that I feel bad for tall people and for overweight people, airlines put them in terrible situations. That said, if I’m on a 10 hour night flight, I won’t not recline …the more layovers and the longer I have not slept, the less I’ll think of other people on planes, it’s like a desperate survival instinct…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree! I’ve been on some long haul flights (my longest being a 15 hour long red eye to Australia). You bet I’m reclining on that flight! It really is a shame that the airlines are prioritizing money over customers so much, but short of getting them to change it’s definitely worthwhile to try and work with our fellow passengers. 🙂

      Thanks for weighing in!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hear you! Flights, especially long ones, can really be uncomfortable & awkward when you have inconsiderate neighbours. If we would all just exercise courtesy & common sense, I think it would all be so much more pleasant!


  3. It would be great if airlines printed these rules and put them in pocket near safety instructions 😀
    I have nothing against person reclining their seat in front of me if they warn me..sadly, it never happened.


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