A Definitive Guide to Reclining Your Seat on an Airplane

The surprising consensus among travel and etiquette experts

February 15, 2020 5:37 am
A Definitive Guide to Reclining Your Seat on an Airplane
Rachel Jenks / Unsplash

By now you’ve seen the video of the agitated man in the last row of a plane berating a woman in front of him for reclining her seat. While not shown in the viral video, the woman on the plane (Wendi Williams) later noted on Twitter that she did put her seat up while the man ate, and that the physical assault of her seatback started when she put the chair back down post-meal.

While violence is never the answer, a follow-up discussion in the InsideHook office on airline reclining seats got rather heated. Some editors were on team punchy’s side; others adamently defended the right to recline as much as they want whenever they wanted, because they paid for the seat and reclining is allowed under the airline’s rules. 

As aircraft cabin designer James Lee once noted, “The question of the recline is like a zero-sum game. The gain of one person is the pain of the person behind.”

We did find some middle ground during our argument: there’s no denying that the guy in the video responds like a jackass, regardless of the severity of the crime against him. “That man’s constant punching of the lady’s seat in front of him is utterly juvenile and completely ridiculous,” says Emilie Dulles, an etiquette, wedding and travel expert (whose family has an airport named after them in Washington, D.C.). “If he felt that strongly about not having someone recline into his space, then he should have booked a different row, paid for an upgrade or asked nicely to switch seats with someone. Irrational behavior in any airline situation is uncouth.” (That said, Dulles also had words for the woman in the video — see below.)

In search of a definitive answer, we asked some travel and etiquette experts as well as a few frequent flyers some questions about reclining. While there was some disagreement on specifics, the actual right to recline was an across-the-board affirmative. 

On whether you should recline your seat at all

“Let them recline. This is a first-world problem we are talking about. If you want more room, pay for it. You can’t play the victim card everywhere. Simply take matters into your own hands and don’t blame the other person for reclining.” — Brian Hymas, from the travel hacking site FlyFreeSecrets

“Simply looking back and asking ‘Can I recline please?’ makes all of the difference. But I personally still choose not to recline in low-budget airlines, because getting into your seat is hard enough and we all have to deal with the same limited amount of space.” — Chizoba Anyaoha, founder of solo travel app TravSolo

“Despite vehement civilian complaints, all flight attendants agree that seat reclining is not just the privilege, but the right of every passenger whose seat leans back. At the end of the day, all you have to be is courteous and careful for the traveler behind you.” — Jennifer Willy, editor at the travel visa site Etia

On the times you shouldn’t recline your seat

“If you do not need the space, such as a five-year-old in a seat, there is no need to recline. Or, if your reclining will negatively impact the person behind you, such as someone with their knee in a brace, you should not recline.” — Jodi RR Smith, Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting

“When you are seated in the last row –– and you cannot recline –– then it is polite for the person in front of you not to recline all the way back. The lady [in the video] was within her rights to recline fully based on the seat she booked, yet being in the right isn’t always the best outcome for everyone involved.” — Emilie Dulles, etiquette expert

“Never recline when you arrive to your flight or when the plane is descending. Put your seat up the moment you see food arrive (and then wait until all trays have been removed before you go back down).” — Adeodata Czink, Business of Manners

On whether you should ask before reclining …

“I like to take a quick glance and check if the passenger behind me is reclined before I go ahead and pull the lever. If they aren’t reclined, I usually like to start by giving my seat a 20% recline, and just sit there for a few minutes to gauge if I can go further to about 50%. If there is no visible or audible protest by then or if the passenger reclines as well, then I go to 100% recline and call it a night. If not, then I just go back to 20% and stay there.” — Torben Lonne, Co-Founder & Chief Editor at DIVEIN.com

“Normally, I would recommend notifying the person behind you that you plan on reclining your seat rather than asking because they could say no.” — Bonnie Tsia, founder and director of Beyond Etiqutte

“Evaluate the passenger behind you and if it looks like you won’t be greatly disturbing them by tilting your seat back three inches, it’s polite to peek back with a smile and nodding gesture to indicate that you will be reclining. Then ease your seat back gently.” — Jessica Lieffring, CEO and Founder of The Polite Society

If the person reclining in front of you is causing discomfort, what should you do?

“If the person ahead of you declines a polite proposal to put the seat back up, then call for a flight attendant. They’ll solve your problem by asking the person in front of you to stop or by asking either of you to move to a different seat.” — Anh Trinh, frequent flyer and managing editor of GeekWithLaptop

“If you’re physically uncomfortable (i.e., your knees being pressed against by the reclined chair), aren’t able to move, can’t get your work done on your laptop, or unable to consume your drink or food due to the person in front of you reclining their seat, kindly ask them if they could move their seat up a few inches to make it a little more comfortable for you for the time being. However, we should keep in mind that we shouldn’t ask them to not recline their seat just because we don’t like it or want them to.” — Bonnie Tsia, Beyond Etiquette

“Technically, you paid for the seat and have the ‘right’ to recline, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right. If the person in front of you is inconsiderate and reclines into your territory, there is really nothing you can do about it and it is not worth making a scene by bumping their seat or overtly complaining. After all, etiquette is about showing consideration, kindness and respect to other people. Airplane cabins are full of other people, so is making a fuss really worth those three inches?” — Jessica Lieffring, The Polite Society

If you recline and the person in front of you asks you not to, what should you do?

“If they ask nicely, it would be kind of you to at least lift your seat back halfway.” — Jodi RR Smith, Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting 

And finally… who’s really to blame?

It’s the airlines. The FAA determined in 2018 that ever-shrinking airline seats didn’t make flying more dangerous.‘People have less room in the seats; the seats are less comfortable than they used to be; and they are reacting in a very predictable way – they’re freaking out,” Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel advocate, told Marketwatch as noted by The Guardian). “Minimum seat size could stop these mid-air confrontations.”

The good/bad news? Reclining might not even be an option on short-haul flights in the near future. “Many airlines like United are introducing “Slimline” seats that have less backpadding and don’t allow you to recline, so in the next few years, I think travelers won’t have the option to recline anymore,” travel blogger Raj Mahal says.


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