Is it rude to recline your airplane seat? There are few issues on which travelers so violently disagree. Soon, they may not have a choice.

You're sitting in an economy airline seat, and therefore you're in cramped quarters--major airlines having reduced the space for each passenger by about 12 percent over the past few decades in order to cram in more passengers and make more money. It's just after takeoff, and you're allowed to recline your seat, so you do, gaining a couple more inches of space to stretch out and read, nap, or watch the seat back screen in front of you. The passenger behind you is fuming, because when you leaned back, your seat back tipped over a soda and bent a laptop to an unworkable angle. 

Which of you is right? Legally speaking and in accordance with airline policy, a passenger sitting in a reclining seat has the right to recline that seat. Then again, it's legal for you to rush to the head of the taxi line so as to get there before the elderly woman using a cane. It's legal for you to take your time paying for $200 worth of groceries while the worker on a lunch break waits behind you with a single sandwich. Just because something isn't forbidden doesn't necessarily mean you should do it.

So is it rude to recline your airplane seat? On that point, travel experts and frequent travelers completely disagree. This piece on Outside.com seems to originally have been titled "People Who Recline Their Airline Seats Are Monsters," although now that it's gone viral the headline's been toned down a bit. Arlene Harris, an Irish Times reporter is so incensed by people who recline their airplane seats that she actually asked a psychologist if there was something wrong with them. Here's the answer she got:

"Seat recliners are comfort seekers at the expense of others. They are likely to put their own needs ahead of others and be inconsiderate and intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them. Some have been pampered children who grew up with an exaggerated sense of entitlement." 

Wow. 

Also firmly in the thou-shalt-not-recline camp is inventor Ira Goldman, who cleverly created something called the Knee Defender that sells for $21.95. You can clip them to your tray table supports and prevent the seat in front of you from reclining. The device was the flash point for an argument between two United passengers in 2014, one of whom wound up throwing soda on the other. The plane made an unscheduled landing so both could be removed. Since then, many airlines have banned the device.

At the other end of the spectrum, travel site The Points Guy offers what it claims is "The Final Word on the Right to Recline." Its conclusion: It's your seat, it's your space, it's your right to recline if you want to, although it would be thoughtful to look behind you first and make sure you aren't going to damage anything. 

Many passengers take the position that "If my reclining cramps your space, you can always recline too." That's disingenuous because if you spend most of your flight time working, as I do, then when the person in front of you reclines it severely limits the space for your laptop, and reclining yourself won't help in any way. 

If you're concerned reclining would be too rude and not reclining would be too uncomfortable, here are some compromises you can try:

1. Consider the timing.

Even Outside.com, which initially said those who reclined are monsters, says it's OK to recline on a long flight, especially a nighttime flight where most passengers are sleeping. On short hops, where people are awake and usually working, you should stay upright, Outside.com says. And many experts agree that to be courteous, you should always move your seat to upright during meal service. Which, incidentally, will make it easier for you to eat.

2. Recline a short distance slowly.

This is often my strategy because I find a half inch or an inch is enough to give me a bit more breathing space and, if napping or reading, I can lean my head against the side of the next seat (if it's not reclined). In many airplanes, seats only recline by an inch or two in any case. That might not be enough to make a big difference to the passenger behind you, especially if you do it slowly.

3. Look behind you.

Unless you do this, you won't know if the person in the seat behind you is napping with the tray table up, and thus unlikely to be affected by you reclining, or maybe even if the seat is empty. And if the person is using their tray table, you can nicely warn them that you're about to recline or--if you really want to be kind--ask them whether they mind.

Ultimately, airlines are likely to settle this question for us because bit by bit they are installing seats that don't recline. In typical airline speak, these are called "pre-reclined" seats because their angle is midway between the fully upright setting and the fully reclined one on a reclining seat. It's a win for the airlines because it turns out that pre-reclined seats, since they don't need any mechanics, are lighter than traditional ones, allowing the plane to burn less fuel. And--you guessed it--airlines that install these pre-reclined seats tend to reduce legroom at the same time, allowing them to fit even more passengers on a plane. Spirit, an early embracer of the pre-reclined seat has reduced its "pitch" (the total space for one seat and one passenger) to 28 inches. If you're willing to pay more, you can have one of its "Big Front" seats which has 36 inches of pitch. That was standard on most airlines decades ago, but seems incredibly luxurious by today's standard. Still, even a Big Front seat won't recline.

Published on: Mar 25, 2019
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