Should you recline your airline seat? The passenger sitting in front of me on a recent flight never bothered asking. Shortly after takeoff, he just lurched backward. No warning.
He didn’t get far because my knees stopped him. That’s what happens when you only have just 28 inches between seats, as on my one-hour Jetstar flight from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Auckland, New Zealand — and when the passenger behind you is 6 feet 1 inch tall, which is also my height.
This scenario will repeat itself countless times this summer as economy class airline passengers lean their tiny airline seats back into what little personal space remains. The government knows it’s a problem, which is why Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seats. But those won’t be ready for the frenetic summer travel season.
So what happens if you’re wedged into a seat this summer and you hear the announcement to “sit back, relax and enjoy the flight”?
Well, you could end up like the guy in front of me. He kept bulldozing back at regular intervals, hoping somehow my knees would disappear. They did not. Finally, he gave up and remained in the upright position for the duration of the flight. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Others won’t be so lucky. Their knees will provide an insufficient barrier, or worse, the “leaner” will wait until after they visit the lavatory to recline all the way. And just like that, an already tight space will feel like a pressurized coffin.
There’s a correct answer to the question, “Should I recline my airline seat?” But are you ready to hear it?
Is it OK to recline your seat on an airplane?
In a word, no.
“Unless you were sitting in a seat with extra legroom, or in first class, it would be inconsiderate to recline your seat,” says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who runs the Protocol School of Texas. “Space is tight, and it’s common knowledge and no surprise that you will be sitting in tight quarters.”
It used to be fine, back when there was enough space (34 inches between economy class seats should be a standard). But those days are long gone. In economy class, I used to have enough room to cross my legs; now I can’t even move my legs after I’ve taken a seat.
Space seems tighter since the pandemic ended. Maybe filling those empty middle seats and eliminating the masking requirement makes the planes feel more crowded. Then again, maybe airlines saw an opportunity to quietly nudge the seats a little closer together before the FAA sets its new space rules. (Airlines don’t make a public announcement when they shrink their seats.)
But there’s a growing consensus that leaning back is a no-no under almost all circumstances. We’re simply out of room.
Passengers will recline their seats, anyway
Reality check: All the etiquette experts in the world can’t stop passengers from leaning back in their economy class seats. Among the general flying public, roughly half of passengers support reclining their seat. The percentage is higher for frequent travelers. A recent informal poll of frequent flyers by App in the Air found 70% believe they should be able to recline their seats.
The seat leaners argue that they paid for a seat, so they should be able to use it any way they want. They also assert if they aren’t supposed to lean back then the seats wouldn’t be able to lean back.
Both arguments are absurd. You can’t use the airline seat any way you want. Just try changing your baby’s diaper on it — the flight attendants will scold you and send you to the lavatory. As for the second assertion, “If they didn’t want the seats to recline, they wouldn’t recline” option, well, that’s just airline trickery.
“The airlines have effectively sold the space where the seat reclines twice — to both the person sitting in the seat and the person behind them,” says Eric Finkel, a frequent traveler and management consultant from Vancouver, B.C. “From the airline’s perspective, making money on the same space twice and letting the passengers fight it out is a feature, not a bug.”
Bottom line: Even though you shouldn’t lean your seat back, roughly half of the people on your plane will.
Does never really mean never?
There are only a few exceptions to the no-leaning rule. If you’re on a redeye flight or if you need extra space because you have a bad back — in other words, in special circumstances — you can lean a little. But it’s a negotiation, say etiquette experts.
“Ask if it would be all right if you recline your seat a touch,” says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette consultant with Business of Manners. “That works better than a sudden BANG!”
If the person behind you says “no,” have a conversation. Maybe you can move halfway back as a compromise? Or maybe you can ask the flight attendant to move you to a different seat (scroll down for more tips).
But there are lots of circumstances in which you should never recline. For example:
When the passenger behind you is using a computing device. Economy class seats are so small that even a little bit of lean can eliminate the ability to work on a laptop computer. If you jerk your seat back without asking, you could be buying someone a new computer. “Nobody likes their laptop snapped in half,” says Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and host of the weekly podcast Were You Raised By Wolves?
During food and beverage service. “Avoid reclining when the majority of the passengers are enjoying their snack or meal,” says etiquette expert Rosalinda Oropeza Randall. The reason is obvious. If you push your seat back while the person behind you is eating, you’ll send the food — and maybe the drink — into their lap.
If there are young kids behind you. Leaning into a toddler’s personal space is inadvisable for all kinds of reasons. A young passenger can make you pay for your airspace violation by turning their tray table into a drum set — or worse. Also, young passengers like to put their fingers in the cracks between the seats. If you lean back at the wrong time, you could seriously injure them.
If the passenger behind you is tall, injured or disabled. I was all three on a recent red-eye flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Houston — I was on crutches after a ski accident left me with a broken pelvis — and I used up every square inch of personal space. If you see a tall guy with crutches, don’t even think about leaning back. Your selfish actions could cause the passenger to be carried out of the plane on a stretcher.
No one should recline their economy class airline seat anymore. But if you feel you absolutely must, at least ask for permission. Failure to do so could result in damage to electronics, a hefty dry cleaning bill or serious injury to your fellow passengers. Besides, asking is the polite thing to do.
Elliott’s tips for handling a seat leaner
If someone reclines into your personal space, what can you do?
Move to a different seat. If there’s an empty seat nearby that isn’t behind a leaning passenger, take it. You may also be able to persuade another passenger — maybe someone with shorter legs — to switch seats.
Ask a flight attendant for help. Crew members want to avoid any midair confrontations between passengers. They’ll do their best to accommodate you. But avoid pressing the flight attendant call button repeatedly — that will just annoy them.
Negotiate a compromise. Some passengers insist on leaning their seat all the way back, but most are willing to compromise, where they get a little lean and you keep some of your space. A polite request might fix this.