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Is there an etiquette for reclining in the air?
February 28, 2011 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Is there an etiquette for reclining in the air?

I don't fly a lot ... once or twice a year or so. But I just got back from a trip and the return flight was made a lot more uncomfortable when the guy in front of me reclined his seat into my lap. I was seated in front of an exit row so my seat didn't recline at all. I said something to the guy politely but he just looked at me and did nothing. Frankly, I don't think he spoke English. All of this got me wondering if there was an etiquette for this. I've mentioned it to a few people and the answers were split between "Well the seats recline so I'm going to recline them" and "No, you should never go back farther than an inch."

So is there a growing social etiquette in this situation? And/or what would you have done?
posted by lpsguy to Travel & Transportation (85 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is no standard answer to this question. Some people will be considerate, some don't give a damn about you... just like in town.
posted by tomswift at 10:58 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's no standard answer, but there is a best answer -- get to the airport early and choose a better seat (ticket agents are generally as helpful as they can be), don't try to work with a laptop in flight, and choose airlines that advertise more space between seats.

In other words, you have to be an active traveler, making things happen. Or things happen to you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:01 AM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I can't say anything to the social norm, but I always ask politely before I recline and then I do not recline into the persons lap. Some seats recline way too far, not being able to do anything in your seat because someones head is in it sucks. I always pull out the "golden rule" on that one.
posted by Felex at 11:02 AM on February 28, 2011


I ask at the beginning of the flight if I can lower my seat. If the person behind me is obviously tall, or looks very crammed in, I won't recline, because hey, I'm tall and it sucks to be cramped. If they are thin/small child/don't seem like they would be obviously inconvenienced, and say no, I won't recline (but will silently resent them, particularly on overnight flights.)

I am however tall, and recline even on short flights as I barely fit into most coach seats and the recline feature lets me fit a bit better (I try to sit exit row whenever I can, but it's not always possible).

This a very volatile subject though, and there is no standard.
posted by larthegreat at 11:02 AM on February 28, 2011


I don't ask, but I do (a) wait until we have reached an altitude where laptops are permitted, and (b) check to see if they are using a laptop or if they are leaning forward in their seat. I started doing this after someone reclined very quickly and hit my head as I was leaning forward to get something out of my carryon.
posted by muddgirl at 11:04 AM on February 28, 2011


I have asked a similar question.
posted by lalex at 11:05 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't recline your seat if the person behind you has a meal or hot drink on their tray (unless you have an extremely painful cramp etc and must recline - even then, make sure you warn them to avoid them getting a lap full of lasagna or coffee.)

If you recline slowly, rather than quickly, you are less likely to accidentally damage the laptop behind you, and/or injure the person behind you.

A verbal 'I'm about to recline' to the person behind you might be appreciated for that reason.

Very tall people can't cope if you recline - be aware that very tall men may get aggro - if this is the case, perhaps a flight attendant can help you swap seats?
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 11:05 AM on February 28, 2011


Kinda a dick move. But effective.
posted by JimmyJames at 11:06 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone who flys a lot and is fairly well-tuned to social etiquette, the answer to your question is:

No, there is no standard social etiquette around this.
posted by vacapinta at 11:06 AM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I agree that this is why you never take a non-reclining seat, because you are the one who has to suck it up when everyone else reclines. W
posted by smackfu at 11:06 AM on February 28, 2011


Incidentally, Cathay Pacific coach seats rotate inside a shell with a fixed back that never moves. So there is no way for the person in front of you to impact you. Unfortunately, the seats also aren't as comfortable as reclining seats.
posted by smackfu at 11:08 AM on February 28, 2011


There's no standard, and no real answer to this question.

In a perfect world people wouldn't recline without at least asking the person behind them. In the real world I can count the number of times someone has asked me before reclining their seats on one hand, while I would need all my fingers and probably most of my toes to count the number of times I've had my drink spilled, my head whacked, or my book knocked out of my hands by a surprise recline
posted by padraigin at 11:11 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I once had a delightful experience on the London ---> Boston leg of a trip where some parents had left their bratty children in coach while the parents sat in first class. This led to me being forced to listen to their shouts and "he touched mes!" for two hours, after which they finally calmed down and I almost got to sleep.

Then the 7 year old in front of starts banging his chair back into my knees (I'm sitting up, all the way into the back of my seat, not slouching at all - I'm just over 6 ft tall and coach seats on British Airways are not made for people of my stature). I lean forward and politely (as polite as one can be to a 7 year old) address him and his 9 year old sister indicating that I am unfortunately too tall for the seat to go all the way back.

They sit silently.

They then buzz for the flight attendant, who leans down, listens to them whisper, stands up, addresses me and tells me it is my responsibility to rearrange myself such that this kid can recline his chair all the way, because half way isn't fair. I'm serious. I point out the absurdity of this, and the flight attendant responds with "Well, they paid for their tickets just like you [did they? did they really? or did mommy sipping her champagne in first class pay for it?], and everyone is allowed to recline their seats."

In summary, apparently it's your right to recline. I hate every single person who does it to me though, and non more-so than British children.
posted by CharlieSue at 11:12 AM on February 28, 2011 [7 favorites]


I will only recline if I am desperate for sleep and am taller than the person behind me.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:12 AM on February 28, 2011


I enjoyed this post by Redfin's CEO Glenn Kelman on the topic: http://blog.redfin.com/blog/2010/11/jim_flatley_wasnt_a_recliner.html
posted by sharding at 11:12 AM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's pretty much a catch whathaveyou situation because people who inconsiderately recline when they have someone behind them usually are precisely the ones who, if confronted, just stare, or even say nice impolite little things back. Been there heard that; especially gratifying on transatlantic flights with their hour-long anger-incubation-potential.
The etiquette (like with armrest distribution) is that the bully wins while the other one gets high blood pressure.
posted by Namlit at 11:13 AM on February 28, 2011


My travel partner once asked the flight attendant to request the person in front of her to un-recline, given the tight fit between the seats, and the fact that they were not in a position where reclining was necessary--and the flight attendant refused, claiming that the airline owed the recliner just as much comfort as the person seated behind them.

There is absolutely no etiquette to this, and no sense of consideration. I'm glad I don't travel by air much.
posted by litnerd at 11:13 AM on February 28, 2011


There is a product to prevent the seat in front of you from reclining, and they have a discussion of the etiquette involved.

In that piece, they quote Miss Manners who mostly punts the issue as the airlines fault for putting their passengers in a situation where one's comfort comes at the expense of a fellow passenger.
posted by gladly at 11:16 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Contrarian response here.

My inclination is to be considerate, so I used to ask. But just as there are selfish people who don't give a darn and simply recline because they CAN, those same sorts of people, when seated behind you, will do an instant mental calculation and conclude it's better to vociferously say 'no" and stake out more space for themselves.

Ideally, I'm nice enough to ask, and they're enough nice to agree. But that requires a matched set of niceness. And since I can't count on that, I instead do the minimum: I glance back to see if there's a meal or laptop on their tray table, I gauge the leg length of the person, and I recline VERY slowly and not all the way. And that's that. I never ever ask. I'm unilaterally as nice as I can be, and I don't count on bilateral niceness.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:19 AM on February 28, 2011 [17 favorites]


The last flight I took, the person in front of me didn't look back to make sure the coast was clear before slamming his seat into recline. I was reaching down at that exact moment to retrieve something from my bag stowed under his seat, and was hit rather hard on the head. So yeah, please check/ask before you recline.
posted by hollisimo at 11:20 AM on February 28, 2011


I believe that it would be best if everyone would just recline together. It sucks that there are some seats that can't recline, but them's the breaks. Expecting someone in front of you to not recline is silly, particularly as the person in front of him/her may have reclined, and if he/she does not recline, then space will be VERY limited for that person.
posted by eas98 at 11:22 AM on February 28, 2011


Wow, Quisp, I never before realized the parallels between seat reclining and the prisoner's dilemma.
posted by verbyournouns at 11:23 AM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


When you recline, do it slowly, and start with a one-inch bump so people behind you know your seat is moving and thus warned have time to move any laptops/heads/drinks that might be affected.

Only ask if you're ok with respecting a "no" from a sociopath. It's not for you to decide whether the person in front of you may recline, and it's not for the person behind you to decide whether you may recline.

That said, while I wouldn't suggesting asking, notifying can be gracious.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:27 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


i think i'm with Quisp. i fly a lot, and reclining is actually better for my body during travel (which is why i never intentionally choose the seats that don't recline). so i try to lean back in the most curteous fashion possible, but i lean.
posted by anya32 at 11:27 AM on February 28, 2011


There is no etiquette. Just last week I sat behind a dead-heading pilot who reclined his (bulkhead) seat AND the empty one next to him so that the flight attendant wouldn't see he was reclined during takeoff and landing.

I have been on hundreds of flights and never once been asked if it was okay with me, and I can't say I've ever noticed anyone checking my comfort either. Mefites are an amazing bunch, but it must be an extreme case of self-selection if this many people answered that way.
posted by cabingirl at 11:28 AM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


The difference between fully reclined and vertical has been vanishingly small on every flight I've ever taken. I'm kind of surprised that reclining has caused so many people problems. I always fly coach. Is this a business class problem or something?
posted by jsturgill at 11:31 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is very, very rude to recline during meal service. It is polite to recline slowly. It is normal to assume that your comfort trumps that of other people, including those directly in front of or behind you on an airplane seat, but not to expect them to believe the same or to act upon your beliefs.

I've never asked or been asked about reclining, or warned or been warned. I guess that would be nice, being warned, but it seems surprising.
posted by jeather at 11:34 AM on February 28, 2011


jsturgill, it's a tall person thing. I'm not enormous, just six feet even, but a fully reclined seat means having my kneecaps literally mashed into the back of the seat in front of me. Which is not just uncomfortable, it's dangerous for an intercontinental flight. Blood circulation is not optional!

Per my reply above, a half recline is a good compromise. Shows you're considerate and ensures the person behind has some space (I recline all the way for kids and short people).

More important is speed of recline. Fast, sudden recliners are inconsiderate jerks, period.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:36 AM on February 28, 2011


I am only 5 feet tall and as such can usually fit into a coach class seat alright. I have never once reclined on a flight that was not trans-oceanic. I get people's heads in my lap sometimes, sometimes there will be such poorly designed seating arrangements that all access to my stuff in the front pocket is gone. But still, I don't recline. Also, I almost never bring a carry-on that I can't fit under my seat.

There's something about flying that makes me want to curl up into a tiny ball and be as unobtrusive as physically possible. It seems to work, too, whether by karma or luck or just by virtue of having short enough legs. When someone reclines in front of me to the point where I can see their face, I'll give them such a withering stare that they end up un-reclining after a short while. When flight attendants see that I am being exemplary at not mucking things up, they'll sometimes switch things so the kicking, crying, annoying child behind me is traded with a tall, demanding, QUIET person who needs every inch of legroom they can get.

I don't really know if what I do makes anybody's life better, but it makes me feel better, and less guilty about the indignities of plane travel, so that's my etiquette.
posted by Mizu at 11:36 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The difference between fully reclined and vertical has been vanishingly small on every flight I've ever taken. I'm kind of surprised that reclining has caused so many people problems

Put a full-sized laptop on the coach-class tray table and you'll need to open the screen all the way to touching the back of the chair in front to see the screen. At this point, even a mere 10-degree shift in seat angle is a 5mm pile-driving compression of the laptop screen. A laptop will break before an airline seat will.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:36 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't understand either. The one inch I get when I recline doesn't really make me any more comfortable than I was before. So, as long as I do it gently, how much more uncomfortable could you really be?

From your descriptions, it seems like you all must be talking about some different kinds of planes that actually let you recline a substantial amount. I have pretty much flown only Southwest Airlines for the last 10 years, and once on US Airways. On both of those airlines, the 'recline' is really about only 2 or 3 inches of an arc.

Could someone clarify the magnitude of the reclines that are causing so much vitriol? And on what sort of airlines they are? I am curious.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:42 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I tend to think that if you don't absolutely need to recline, don't. It seems like you are far more likely to cause difficulties to the person behind you than you are to give yourself comfort, given the setup of the plane.

Might I recommend Gene Weingarten on this topic?
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:46 AM on February 28, 2011


Dude in front of me snagged my laptop's screen and kept trying to recline over my "SIR HEY SIR LET ME MOVE MY LAPTOP STOOOOOP." I managed to unwedge it before it broke, but I was not pleased. Always at least try to check what's up behind you.

(14" iBook, Southwest flight.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:53 AM on February 28, 2011


If I am sitting behind you, my knees will already be so slammed into the back of your seat, reclining will be impossible.

I wish they would take the recline buttons away.
posted by Kronur at 11:55 AM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


You want to sit behind me because I never recline. I hate it when people do it to me.
posted by theredpen at 12:00 PM on February 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


If you need to work on your flight, I am very sorry that your company does not buy you appropriate plane tickets, but it is not my problem. If you want to play computer games or watch movies on your flight, I am sympathetic as I too like playing games, but it is still not my problem. If you are tall, I am sympathetic and if you're not an asshole about it, I will be as considerate as possible -- I find sitting upright oddly painful in plane seats, not just uncomfortable, though on short flights I can be okay -- but if you are an asshole, I will put my seat down when you go to the bathroom and then go to sleep.
posted by jeather at 12:08 PM on February 28, 2011


I don't like it when people recline on me, so I don't recline, because I am not an asshole and am not particularly less uncomfortable either way.
posted by ghharr at 12:11 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm with theredpen. Reclining is not comfortable -- nearly as uncomfortable as being reclined upon. Airlines suck for selling the same space twice, once to me and my laptop and once to my sleeping front neighbor. They should make non-reclining sections in planes. The only catch there is they'll reduce legroom even further.

@jeather: I pay my airline tickets from research grants. They don't do business class. Period. And I am not an asshole. Most people are not.
posted by gijsvs at 12:15 PM on February 28, 2011


I look back to make sure nothing will be broken/spilled if I recline, then recline slowly.

I never ask, but I also never expect others to be asked. And I never complain when people recline with due care.

I hate hate hate, however, when I recline slowly, when nothing is on the tray behind me, and yet the (non-tall) person behind me throws a hissy-fit. You need actual reasons to complain, not just an "I own this space" mentality.

However, I also rarely recline, since, as a tall person, it is invariably more uncomfortable: the upper part of the seat which acts as a headrest for 99% of the population (allowing their torso to fit nicely into the mildly concave portion of the seat) acts as an upper-back-rest for me, leaving a significant void between my mid-to-lower back and the seat, and reclining only makes this worse.
posted by astrochimp at 12:16 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've never asked, or been asked about seats reclining. I never recline my seat during meal service, and when I do recline the seat, do so slowly to make sure the person in back isn't surprised.

I think the smartest thing is for everyone to recline at the same time AND for airplane seats to be re-engineered. But until that day comes, whenever I would be more comfortable reclining, I will ensure meal service isn't in progress and no hot drinks are about to be spilled, and slowly and politely recline my seat. I don't regard this as in any way impolite, it really would never occur to me that it was anything out of the ordinary. If I had, unknowing, made the person behind me uncomfortable, I'd expect them to tell me that. If they pointed this out politely and I could comfortably accomodate them, of course, I would.



I recline all the way for kids and short people


I'm short, and am pretty surprised at some of the responses in the thread. As a rather petite woman, FA's have occasionally asked me to swap seats to sit next to a generously-sized passenger because the passenger wasn't able to fit beside average-sized people. There actually seems to be a culture promoting this sort of thing on board airplanes. I can't count the number of times people (that I didn't previously know) wanted to put the armrest up since I was not using all of "my" seat so they could overflow into it more comfortably. This gets my goat, as does the implication that since I'm short, I should a) not recline and b) expect other passengers to recline fully in front of me.

posted by arnicae at 12:20 PM on February 28, 2011 [15 favorites]


If you recline on me I can't see the movie, I can't play a game / read a book / use the tray so I will plant my knees firmly into your back, move those knees so you know it's me not the seat being uncomfortable and I will do this for hours. And I won't break eye contact when you look at me - you will be in no doubt why I hate you. I have never and would never recline.
posted by episodic at 12:20 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Most people aren't assholes, and if they explain that they are tall and it is painful for them if I recline, then I will happily work with them to find a way we can both be in less pain. If they play games like kicking my seat or slamming the little table open and closed twelve times in a row, I act just as assholey and play games back.

I'm really sorry your research grant doesn't allow you to pay for sufficient room in the flight, but I still do not see how it becomes my problem to sit painfully because you want to work.

(Note: I do not mind when people recline in front of me, except during mealtimes. I also rarely have problems when I recline.)
posted by jeather at 12:21 PM on February 28, 2011


I like having the person in front of me recline,. that makes it much easier for me to use the back of their seat as my own personal drumkit.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:26 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


but I still do not see how it becomes my problem to sit painfully because you want to work.

Curious: how is it the problem of the person sitting behind you that you find it painful to sit upright on planes?

In general I think we should all be conscious of the comfort of others, and planes have become increasingly uncomfortable for everyone as more seats get crammed into the same amount of space. But your argument is kind of strange, that you are sympathetic toward the wants and needs of others but find that your own comfort supercedes those wants and needs.
posted by padraigin at 12:31 PM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Not an answer to your question, but related: When using a laptop I put it on top of a slippery magazine or two instead of directly on the tray. If the person in front suddenly reclines, the laptop slides toward me due to the low friction, instead of breaking. At least that's the theory, it may have saved the day for me at least once. Obviously, no guarantees here.
posted by Kevin S at 12:36 PM on February 28, 2011


I will plant my knees firmly into your back, move those knees so you know it's me not the seat being uncomfortable and I will do this for hours. And I won't break eye contact when you look at me - you will be in no doubt why I hate you. I have never and would never recline.

That's a pretty dick move.

Some of us are tall enough that we have precisely one option to sit if the backrest is upright. Personally, I can't maintain that position for too long without getting pins and needles and backache, so I will recline my seat (slowly, to be considerate, and with a glance) but if you hate me because the airline seats are too small for me to be comfortable without reclining the seat, then I don't care how much eye contact you keep with me. Take it up with the airline, don't make it my fault.

The only way I can move my legs (or, on some airlines, unjam them from the magazine pouch) is to recline so I can shuffle around a bit. I can't even have the magazines in front of me on some airlines, and you begrudge me reclining because it makes it slightly harder (it can't be impossible if someone as tall as me can still see the screens) for movies. And if you have been on a flight where reclining prevents you from reading a book, then my dick is a kipper.

So there is no etiquette, but there are a lot of dicks in this world, so it's unlikely that you will either not recline and be able to presume the person in front of you won't (which is the only way it can work) nor that you can recline and everyone behind you does without pissing someone else off. So, basically, my logic dictates that leaves us with 'as long as you don't break their laptop or spill their drink/dinner, then recline if you need or want to'.
posted by Brockles at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I believe I have said, several times, that if I am causing pain to the person behind me, I will work things out, as I do not want to cause physical pain. Of course I cannot know this in advance.

It isn't the problem of the person sitting behind me, either, but then I don't expect them to consider if I am asleep when they get up and knock the seat, or open or close the lights, etc. I do not think that you own the space that the seat in front of you can recline into.
posted by jeather at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2011


Kronur: If I am sitting behind you, my knees will already be so slammed into the back of your seat, reclining will be impossible.

I wish they would take the recline buttons away.


So strongly seconded. I'm female and not extraordinarily tall, just 5'11" with a lot of it in the top half of my leg, and I never ever recline because my experiences of flying involve bruised knees and misery because someone else decides they're going to put their comfort first even when they've met resistance in the form of bone and flesh. I don't need to shove my knees into your back, they're probably already there if you've reclined.

So yeah, for me, you only recline in first class.
posted by carbide at 12:40 PM on February 28, 2011


I'm 6'5", and don't really care--I mean, it sucks for all of us, right? Plus, usually your reclining your seat opens up a hair's more foot room under your seat, so it's pretty much even for me. I typically just take the train.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:41 PM on February 28, 2011


I didn't read the other comments, so I'm sorry if I'm repeating some people.

I grew up with parents that would always complain if someone reclined their seat into them. I then learned this behavior myself, assuming that while the chair allows you to, you should not do it. Then I grew up and realized that my parents were crazy, and now if I want to I recline my seat. If it can/will happen to me, it should happen to the person behind me.

Flying is not a luxury, it is a mode of transportation. On subways you may have to stand, on buses you may be crammed in seat next to the bathroom and on a plane you may have someone who wants to utilize the features that planes were designed to have, and recline.

If you have a problem with my reclining... change seats.
posted by darkgroove at 12:48 PM on February 28, 2011


I am short, such that the headrest contour in a non-reclined seat hits me square in the back of the head. To avoid hours of sitting with my head cocked forward, I recline (slowly) and slouch, unless there is a very tall person or a person with a laptop behind me. I also roll my jacket behind my lower back, so that trick with the knees fazes not. On the kind side, I put everything but large rolling carry-ons under the seat (short legs), so you've got extra room for your luggage in the bins.
posted by amber_dale at 1:12 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


The main reason I hate it when people in front of me recline their seats stems from an incident a number of years ago. We'd just gotten going, and the drinks trolleys had come out. The guy in front of me ordered a beer. Once he'd gotten his beer, he reclined his seat, so as to replicate the sensation of his La-z-boy, or something, I don't know. I was mildly annoyed but said nothing.

Then we hit turbulence. His beer flew in a glorious arc up and over his head to land directly in my face. Had he been sitting up, it would have hit him, not me.
posted by LN at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The etiquette for reclining a seat in steerage class is as follows: Do Not Recline Your Seat.

That is all. No, really. It's just rude to recline if you're in coach.
posted by Justinian at 1:27 PM on February 28, 2011 [8 favorites]


I flew while seven months pregnant, needing lots of water to stave off intense braxton-hicks contractions. The person in front of me promptly reclined her seat all the way, making it impossible for me to negotiate my pregnant body out of the seat in order to go to the bathroom, and then put her head down on the tray table and fell asleep. I had to get the flight attendant to ask her to un-recline her seat every time I needed to go to the bathroom, which ended up being 5 times on a 4 hour flight, and every time, she re-reclined it the instant I was up in the aisle -- and then put her head back on the tray table.

I hate her to this day.
posted by KathrynT at 1:36 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow, I am amazed at the strong feelings in this thread. I've flown a lot, and always recline without thinking about it (and I don't mind if the person in front of me does the same).

I recline for the same reason as amber_dale: the headrest forces my head forward instead of supporting my neck.

From now on I'll try to be more conscious of the person behind me, but again... wow. I had no idea an "etiquette" would even be necessary for this.
posted by torticat at 1:39 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is a product to prevent the seat in front of you from reclining

However, note that the Knee Defender only works when your own tray table is down. Therefore it (they?) must be installed in the brief interval after liftoff, but before the asshole passenger in front of you reclines.
posted by Rash at 1:42 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Complaining about the person in front of you reclining their seat seems very much like complaining because you thought the seat next to you would be unoccupied. If you're not paying for the seat you're not in charge of how it is used.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:52 PM on February 28, 2011 [13 favorites]


I am similarly amazed at the vitriol shown in this thread towards reclining. Man, I fly to Europe from the US and back again every couple of months and if you told me I couldn't recline my seat I would think you were a controlling asshat.

I'll be conscious and courteous and careful not to spill anything/break laptops/hurt anyone but fuck, I need to sleep, or at least try to. I am absolutely not going to spend 8 hours with a sore, stiff neck and the resulting tension headache because the person behind me wants to work on their laptop.
posted by lydhre at 1:53 PM on February 28, 2011 [8 favorites]


I don't recline unless the person in front of me does. Then I really have no choice. Key, get a window seat. Aisle seats suck form Transatlantic anyway since the drinks trolleys and people going up to the bathroom invariably collide with your feet. Window seat you can get a comfy pillw and rest your head against the window.

Can't stand dicks who recline all the way back without so much as a how do you do, but in a sense, if the airlines put the seats to recline they have a right to do it, but what one has a right to do and what one should do to be a good person are not necessarily the same.

While I wouldn't maliciously kick a recliner, since space is so tight, and I must at least occasionally move my legs, that person will get kicked occasionally. He/she will have to deal in the same way I have to deal with said persons seat recline.
posted by xetere at 1:58 PM on February 28, 2011


I have no problem with people reclining their seats, so long as it is after the meal service. The majority of the flights I take are 14 hours plus and include periods where the lights are dimmed for sleeping. I've had a couple of experiences where people recline their seats as soon as they sit in them, and have to be asked to raise them for meals... that makes it a bit difficult to get organised in your seat/ fill out customs forms etc.

But to be truthful, I don't mind even the worst behaviour with seat reclining that much. Last year I was seated next to the traveller from hell, whose behaviour included moving my belongings around whilst I was asleep and putting her feet (and later, her head) on my lap whilst I was asleep (which obviously woke me up). I ended up in tears at the back of the plane because I just couldn't believe how rude this woman was. If I hadn't been sleep deprived and exhausted I would have had the presence of mind to talk to one of the flight attendants, but I was just so tired that I stuck it out and then had a stiff drink upon my arrival in Sydney.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:00 PM on February 28, 2011


I can't fault anyone for reclining, since the seats do give that option, and if the person in front of me does it, I have no choice but to do it too. I always do politely ask the person in front of me to straighten up during meal service.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:12 PM on February 28, 2011


Could all the "never recline your seat" people please indicate the average length of the flights they take? It is one thing to have a 2 hour flight with that kind of rule, another entirely to talk about a 14 hour monster.

I feel real sorry for the tall (real tall) guy who sat behind me on a Trans-atlantic flight (NB about 6-8 hours, not 14), I would have liked to recline a little so I could sleep, but the seat just wouldn't move. This is not the tall guys fault, neither is it my fault for having a back that isn't flexible due to surgery. I did not sleep. This is the airline's fault, but until they put in decent leg room to accommodate the growing population (height), we have to co-exist.

The seats recline so you can sleep. I will take into consideration who is behind me, but if you've got leg room I will be reclining: slowly and carefully. Unless it's a short, no-sleep flight.

I also apologise for sometimes thinking that the seat is broken- it has been in the past. Other times it's because of a baby seat or tall person. I will check next time.

Don't recline during meals. The flight attendants will ask you to not recline when the meal is served, and also during take off and landing. This is the number 1 rule of thumb that I think everyone agrees on.

My personal rule of thumb is: I paid for the flight. So did the person behind me. If reclining isn't going to hurt them, I will recline at a sensible time, speed and distance.
posted by titanium_geek at 2:31 PM on February 28, 2011


I usually ask first, but if I look back and the person behind me is already fully reclined, and the person behind them looks miserable, I will recline fully and immediately as a sort of communal act of vengeance.
posted by elizardbits at 2:55 PM on February 28, 2011


The etiquette for reclining a seat in steerage class is as follows: Do Not Recline Your Seat.

That is all. No, really. It's just rude to recline if you're in coach.


It's rude to tell someone what to do with the space that they paid for. If they're paying for a seat that reclines, they are entitled to use it if they want. If you want more space, you pay for it by buying a first class ticket. Everyone wants cheap airfare, yet everyone wants first class treament. That's not how it works. Of course it's nice when people don't recline during meal service and check behind them to make sure they aren't going to make someone spill their drink or break their laptop. I don't know why people feel so entitled to the space that they didn't pay for.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:57 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Could all the "never recline your seat" people please indicate the average length of the flights they take? It is one thing to have a 2 hour flight with that kind of rule, another entirely to talk about a 14 hour monster.

I've certainly taken monster flights. Traveling from LAX to FCO was definitely longer than 14 hours. And I maintain that reclining your seat in coach is problematic. On the other hand I'd never take a middle seat (if the plane has middle seats) on a long flight. Or a short one if I could at all help it. I'd rather postpone.

So, yeah, I occasionally take monster flights and don't recline my seat, and think bad thoughts about anyone who reclines back into me.
posted by Justinian at 3:00 PM on February 28, 2011


I had no idea reclining was so frowned upon. I've always thought that the convention was that, by default (i.e. unless the person behind asks otherwise, or unless the person behind is obviously far too cramped already, or something), everyone is entitled to recline their seats to the angle of their choosing. Never asked before doing it, never expected anyone in front of me to ask first, never been offended at someone in front of me doing it.
posted by equalpants at 3:01 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's rude to tell someone what to do with the space that they paid for.

Like I said, I just think bad thoughts at them. And practice what I preach by not reclining my seat. Is that still rude? There's a difference between whether you have the right to insist someone not recline their seat (you do not) and simply thinking it gauche (which I do). The OPs question was about etiquette. My take is that etiquette dictates you don't recline your seat unless you absolutely have to do so. Etiquette also dictates that you do not act rudely if someone violates this rule. I would say that is the opposite of rude.

OP: The best solution is, as others have indicated, to upgrade to business class if at all possible. The price difference may or may not be very great, it depends on the flight. If it can be done cheaply it avoids the issue. If it can't be done cheaply, you may have to suffer other's rudeness.
posted by Justinian at 3:06 PM on February 28, 2011


Could all the "never recline your seat" people please indicate the average length of the flights they take? It is one thing to have a 2 hour flight with that kind of rule, another entirely to talk about a 14 hour monster.

If it's trans-oceanic or if there's a lights-dimming "sleep now!" period of the flight, reclining is just fine. But yeah, I've been known to do the LAX to Dulles fairly often and I never recline my seat, even on a red-eye. And from Dulles to Heathrow, I don't think I've reclined, but I also used to fly Virgin when they had pretty big seats even for coach. Transpacific nearly always involves a nap period, where I've reclined purely out of the sense that, if I want to encourage other people to do it, I should too.

Look, it's not like I think everyone who reclines is a sociopathic asshole or anything. I just get in there, make my little nest with back-supporting pillows and rolled up coats and hunker the hell down and try my damnedest to not move a hair during the entire operation. I don't expect everyone else to do the same. I sort of figure that my behavior helps in some way to even out the horrible disruptive needy people.
posted by Mizu at 3:31 PM on February 28, 2011


Could all the "never recline your seat" people please indicate the average length of the flights they take? It is one thing to have a 2 hour flight with that kind of rule, another entirely to talk about a 14 hour monster.

The cutoff for me is ~3 hours (which is the average length of the domestic flights I typically take). Anything longer than that and I recline.
posted by cabingirl at 3:37 PM on February 28, 2011


I fly a few times a month short and long haul flights. It has NEVER bothered me when someone else reclines. No one has ever asked me if it was ok to recline their seat, and that is perfectly fine by me.

Proper etiquette: Don't recline during meals. Recline slowly. That's it. Definitely do not use devices that restrict the occupant's right to recline his/her seat.
posted by semacd at 3:59 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's rude to tell someone what to do with the space that they paid for. If they're paying for a seat that reclines, they are entitled to use it if they want.

I usually have a calm temper, but unfortunately I am also tall, though not by choice. There are few situations which can make me suddenly boil with rage. One would be a stranger inflicting physical pain on my knees.

Shame that there seems to be no proper social etiquette in this situation?
posted by ovvl at 4:29 PM on February 28, 2011


Shame that there seems to be no proper social etiquette in this situation?

Many people feel perfectly comfortable telling obese passengers (who are arguably not obese 'by choice') to pay for more roomy plane seats, or to pay for two seats. By this logic, tall passengers should either spring for first class or buy the seat ahead of them to ensure that it never reclines into their knees. Personally, I think the logic is shitty in either case, but at least it's consistent - the social norm is for the abnormal passenger to bear the burden of accommodation.
posted by muddgirl at 4:46 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


"the social norm is for the abnormal passenger to bear the burden of accommodation"

You mean the person whose body isn't able to tolerate traveling in an upright seated position like most of us can and wants to deprive me of the laptop tray I paid for?
posted by buggzzee23 at 5:27 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just as the person who can't keep their elbows next to their body can deprive me of the armrest I paid for, or the person with broad shoulders can deprive me of the air space over my seat that I paid for, and so on.
posted by muddgirl at 5:28 PM on February 28, 2011


I was on a flight this very day and got brained when I was bending down to retrieve my kid's Approved Portable Electronic Device from the carry-on Fully Stowed Underneath his seat, and the person in front of him took the very first opportunity she could to move her seat from the Fully Upright and Locked Position. I was less than amused. I don't recline in coach class, and I quietly resent people who do, but I don't try to avenge myself with knees in the seat back.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:30 PM on February 28, 2011


I'm still amazed at this thread. I'm six feet tall and constantly uncomfortable on flights, and it has never occurred to me to be passive aggressively angry at someone deciding to recline their seat.

If I hadn't read everyone else's answer, I would have said that the socially acceptable thing to do is to recline whenever the hell you want. And if someone asks you not to, it would be polite but not necessary to oblige them if there weren't any extenuating circumstances pressuring you to stay reclined. You would only be expected to oblige them if your reclining caused them real harm in some way due to their physiology.

I suppose this is why I don't have an advice column.
posted by jsturgill at 5:59 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wish the seats couldn't recline. Yeah, you may want to lay down, but I don't want my knees crushed.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:00 PM on February 28, 2011


I think the best way to deal with this, as with many things, is to treat your fellow passengers with courtesy and kindness.

If I, or anyone else, is making you uncomfortable or I can help you in some reasonable way, ask me, or at least start by asking me (rather than the FA). I think most reasonable people would try to accomodate you. I certainly will, particularly if you ask me (rather than tell, order, or demand), and even more so if you do it with a friendly smile. I'll be happy to not put my seat back, let you go first because you're in a hurry, or even switch seats with you so that your boyfriend/business colleague/common law wife/child can sit beside you if you ask. If you demand, or just sit in my seat and tell me to go sit in your seat, well, you'll get a rather different response.

Flying sucks these days. It sucks for short ladies, too. In lines where taller people often get a few feet of personal space, I am bumped into and leaned against. I can't tell you how many times people roll their roller bags into me. I suspect it happens to everyone. I've changed seats at the request of FA's to sit next to generously sized passengers when the plane was entirely full, and the assigned occupant was too large to fit in beside said generously-sized passenger. Seatmates on long-haul flights seem to think just because I'm short, they can use my extra leg-room for me, or just flat-out sleep on my shoulder (particularly middle-aged Korean businessmen on trips to Australia, wth?) I lift my carry-on into the overhead apartment which is in my case, entirely overhead, and I often lift your Grandfather or Mom's bag in or out, too. When I check my bag, it always comes back with mysterious sticky spots that smell like syrup (every. time.). So, I realize I can't empathize with the suckitude of being tall on a plane, but plane travel sucks for different people in different ways.

I know you're suffering, too. So when I lock eyes with you and smile as you crouch down to get into your seat that is built too small a child, much less either of us, I'm trying to share the discomfort, lighten the load by connecting with you albeit briefly. We can't do much about rising fuel costs, pay per use lavatories or seats that seem to be getting smaller by the month, but we can make it better by just being decent and kind to each other. So make both of our days a little better and smile back, and ask me if I can do something to make you more comfortable.
posted by arnicae at 6:48 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I only recline when the person behind me already has, or on longer-haul/night flights, when they dim the cabin lights for "night time".
posted by lollusc at 7:03 PM on February 28, 2011


Of course I can recline MY seat. It's mine, not yours. I paid for it. If you don't like it, you can pay more to sit in business class. I always look behind me to see if anyone has stuff on the tray.
posted by twblalock at 7:13 PM on February 28, 2011


It's rude to tell someone what to do with the space that they paid for.

See all that air and shit in front of you? That's what you paid for. That air and shit behind the seat? That's what I PAID FOR.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:27 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course I can recline MY seat. It's mine, not yours. I paid for it. If you don't like it, you can pay more to sit in business class. I always look behind me to see if anyone has stuff on the tray.

See, those two things don't go together. That's why it's sort of worth discussing this. If it is your seat, and you paid for it and so on, stuff on their tray doesn't make any difference, (and neither does the speed and extent of reclining). You paid for being allowed to do what you damn please to do with your space, and that's that, then.

But if the stuff on their tray does make a difference to you (which I think it should), there's an opening to negotiations. There's no principal difference between your knocking down their coke or otherwise confining their space with your seat back, so it's okay to consider both at the same time.

The usual kind of seat construction and setup in economy class is impossible; straight is a pain for the sitter, all-the-way-back is a pain for the person behind. You might find yourself in a position where negotiation is in order. If you don't like it, you can pay more to sit in business class.
posted by Namlit at 2:31 AM on March 1, 2011


You don't do it until you're at cruising altitude, you don't do it during meal service and you put your seat up as soon as the attendants tell you to before landing. If anyone complains about it when you've followed those rules, they're out of order.

Also, avoid those non-reclining seats at the rear and by the centre toilets. They suck.
posted by Decani at 3:25 AM on March 1, 2011


Geez, lots going on in this thread. This is a question that I have spent a perhaps in appropriate amount of time thinking about (at least according to my spouse). I am a tall person. So if you put your seat back, it will strike my knees always before it reclines halfway. It is not possible for me to position my knees in such a way that this does not occur. I am more than irritated by people that recline their seats with no consideration of my height.

But the reality is that the presence of the button to make a seat decline indicates that the airline has assigned property rights for the space in question to the person who wants to decline, not the person behind them. However, the airline is hesitant to make an official declaration of these property rights, leading to the confusion and anger expressed in this thread. If the person has the unambiguous right to decline their seat, us tall folks can figure out if the extra cost of the upgrade is justified. If the person behind has the unambiguous right not to have their space impinged upon by the reclining seat, the person wanting to recline can figure out if the upgrade cost is justified to get a seat that reclines. But the airline doesn't make this declaration, and instead pushed the problem off onto passengers who have conflicting opinions about the property rights, leading to anger.

I tend to think that (as many have expressed), my right to not have my knees crushed trumps the right to comfort of the recliner, but I acknowledge that the need to recline it may be a health issue as well for some people with medical conditions. In an ideal world, once the property rights are assigned, the two parties can privately bargain to reach an optimal solution ("I'll give you $10 to let me recline, or "I'll pay you $10 not to recline") but the transactions costs may prevent this from happening. You could imagine the airlines developing some kind of bargaining app that plays on the video screen in front of your seat that fosters the negotiates between you and the person in front of you and the person behind you. This seems like a stretch of the imagination, no doubt--but the clear assignment of property rights is a necessary first step.

So as much as it pains me (sometimes literally!) to say, although it makes me angry when somebody reclines their seat into my knees, I grit my teeth and acknowledge that, unfortunately, it seems to be their right to do so. But, on the other hand, just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it. (Compassion for others, etc.)
posted by jtfowl0 at 7:05 AM on March 1, 2011


See all that air and shit in front of you? That's what you paid for. That air and shit behind the seat? That's what I PAID FOR.

Then tell me why the recline button is controlled by the owner of the seat and not by the person sitting behind the seat?

You paid for your seat minus the space that the chair in front of you (if the person reclines) takes up. If they don't recline, then it's a bonus. You aren't entitled to that space.

If you do think you are entitled to that space, tell the flight attendant this. S/he will tell you that you are wrong and the person in front of you may recline their seat if they so desire without your permission.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:44 PM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


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