A Passenger’s Right to Recline Their Seat in Coach?

Picking up the meme from Road Warriorette and additional comments by Lucky I’ve given some thought to whether reclining your seat (in coach) is a right or a privilege?

In other words, is it something you’re entitled to do independent of the wishes of the passenger behind you, or something you do only to
the extent it doesn’t inconvenience them? What if you want to sleep and they want to eat or work on their laptop?

Lucky says it’s his right but he doesn’t exercise it in coach on day flights, but does in first class, and that the problem is worse in first due to greater recline and only marginal better pitch (distance between seats, or technically from seat back to seat back). I understand where he’s coming from, I’m especially frustrated being scrunched in domestic first, but won’t ever claim that other passengers reclining their seats in first class is an even worse problem even if it’s one that I experience more often than in coach.

I agree with Lucky though that reclining is the passenger’s right. The norm is that you have control over your seat. In an environment surrounded by masses of people you pretend no one else exists.

Several years ago the Knee Defender was introduced, a rubber clamp that an airline passenger can use to prevent the seat in front from being reclined. It hasn’t sold well, and was even banned by more than one carrier (at least American, Continental). That tells me there’s a norm against preventing passengers from reclining their seats.

I was once in coach flying Cleveland – Los Angeles. I paid a young child, with mother’s consent, $5 not to recline her seat. I got four hours of work on my laptop as a result, a great investment of $5 indeed. In that case the initial allocation of property rights belonged to the child and we found a Coasian bargain.

The better solution is, I think, simply this: United Airlines. If you’re going to fly coach, holding recline constant, seek out additional legroom. The lowest level of elite status with United secure ‘economy plus’ for you, an extra 3-4 inches of legroom. Well worth focusing loyalty, because it maks the whole question a less urgent one.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I would call a $5 payment not to recline the seat in coach a Coachian Bargain. That’s a great deal…airlines should encourage passengers to pay each other not to recline. I’d gladly pay $5.

  2. I agree that the $5 deal is well worth it and would gladly pay that premium. However, I disagree with the fact that it’s your “right” to recline your seat, any more than it’s your “right” to have some breathing room between your seat in front of you.

    I’m a big guy, and if the seat in front of me is reclined, I need to wedge my knees on either side of the seat in front of me. If I’m quick enough, if I see someone thinking of reclining, I just make sure my legs are in front of me, and they’ll just press against my knees a few times and give up. If I’m too slow, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and push their seat back up with my knees.

    When you compare the rights of someone to lay back a few more degrees to someone’s rights to bruised knees, I don’t think it’s even close.

    This doesn’t even take into account not being able to use the tray tables when the seat’s reclined in front of you.

    For my own conscience, I never recline my seat unless there is no one sitting behind me. I also attempt to be upgraded to the 1st row of 1st class when possible, but with only gold status, it’s hit or miss.

  3. On my Monday ORD>IAD flight, a woman threatened to punch another woman in the face after having her (reclined) seat back repeatedly pushed forward. The seat-pusher abuptly changed seats.

  4. I think the solution lies with the airlines. They shouldn’t have seats that recline too much for the amount of pitch available. My gut tells me the recline was designed for an aircraft-era where there was more distance between seats.

    There are existing solutions. I haven’t kept track, but several airlines offer seats that slide forward when they recline — so that the pax behind you is not supposed to suffer. I assume these work, but I’ve never read much about them.

    There are also other seat designs. Some airlines are building thinner seats on the theory that this will allow great pitch. There’s also a design (I just saw it on TACA) where your seat “pocket” is on top, leaving more legroom below. Not sure this particular design helps if you need space to use a laptop, however.

  5. I think people should be able to recline their seats,

    that said, what I REALLY hate is when the person in Y or Especially F just puts ALL their weight into the seat, hits the button and BOOM goes all the way in one fell swoop in one second without the passenger behind to be able to make any adjustments. Sometimes I DO have a laptop on the table, either the seat back table or the armrest ones in F.

    Sometimes, I happen to have my legs crossed, sometimes, I’m actually bending over to get something from under the seat. Sometimes, the meal is being served (yes, ALL of these have happened) and when the violence of the seat moving back comes so fast it can cause not only havoc but also often damage or PAIN. Let’s just think about it a second and give people some time to adjust.

    One doesn’t have to ENGAGE them and say “i’m coming back” possibly starting the argument that maybe one shouldn’t put the seat back in the first place. Just a somewhat slow recline, in stages is best would go a long way to helping out the situation.

  6. I love the idea of a seat that slides forward as it reclines, but it would seem little chance that the strapped airlines will shell out for that when the current solution ‘works’.

  7. On AA coach, the solution is simple: exit row. I don’t even bother upgrading to first on flights under 2 hours since I can almost always get the C seat on an MD-80 in one of the two exit rows. The person in front of me has limited recline, and I have extra leg room.

    Bulkhead is always a decent second choice.

    And for longer flights, upgrade to bulkhead in first. Problem solved.

  8. I happen to be tall enough so that my knees touch the seatback when I am sitting normally. I believe my right to sit normally trumps the right of the would-be recliner. Not an argument that is always resolved without the help of cabin crew.

    I don’t recline my seat if there is someone behind me. I consider it common courtesy.

  9. Knee Defender has sold very well, thank you very much. Since 2003. Don’t know why you thought otherwise.

    And, in spite of rumors and even apparently authoritative posts to the contrary, it has NOT been banned by airlines. The airlines may not like it because it makes clear the problem they don’t want to acknowledge – namely, people are being bashed in their knees by reclining seats. UNLESS an airline puts a limit in its Contract of Carriage (the legal contract you have with the airline when you buy a ticket), it’s fine – unless and until a member of the crew says otherwise. And according to Knee Defender customers, that doesn’t happen. Worst that happens is you have to wait for the next flight. In fact, airline crew have bought Knee Defenders for when they dead-head as passengers. FAA employees have also bought them, and FAA long ago issued a statement that they comply with FAA regulations. And I’ve gone through airport security with a bag full of Knee Defenders along with my notebook computer. The TSA person asked me what they were, smiled, and sent me on my way.

  10. I disagree. My feeling is that it is not simply the seat that I “rent” for the duration of a flight but the space, including the airspace up to the overhead stowage and the area underneath the seat in front. And I do not like people intruding into my “space” by reclining their seat just as I do not intrude into their space when they recline into mine (examining their heads for lice, etc.). And I do not lean back into others’ space in the forlorn hope that the person behind will be less likely to intrude on the folks behind. The most miserable flight I remember was a hot, hot day against a rear bulkhead in a middle aisle, and claustrophobia set in. It is mere misery for a “medium-sized” male (around 200 lbs) to be betwixt two large men and someone in front reclines. Part of my position is, unfortunately, about everyone giving up a bit of comfort so we can all get along rather than maximizing their comfort at the expense of mine.

  11. I think this is a question that will always be under debate until the airlines come up with some better seat designs. A good argument can be made that one purchases a seat on a given flight – and whatever amenities come with that seat are one’s right to use fully. If not, then the airline should have a different seat design.

    That said, however… a bit of courtesy goes a long way. I don’t tend to recline a lot in general, it depends a lot on the specific seat. If it’s a crappy, uncomfortable seat, a few degrees recline never seems to help me much. BUt when I do recline, I always do it gradually as I too hate thew “Slammers” that throw their seatback into your lap suddenly. And if I notice the person behind me is really looking squeezed in, I’ll forgo reclining generally. It’s also appreciated to un-recline when meals are served.

    Ditto on the E+ recommendation – I’m really hoping that stays once the UACO merger is final.

  12. I think it’s a personal space issue. Maximum reclining intrudes on the other passenger’s reasonable expectation of space, it’s beyond rude. I once had someone slam her seat back AND throw her waistlength+ hair over the back of the seat. Not what you really want dangling on to your traytable.

  13. I just flew DEN-BWI over the weekend on UA in E+. The guy in the window seat in my row got into a verbal match with the guy in front of him when we deplaned because the guy in front reclined (well within his right, IMHO – especially in E+). The guy in my row got pissed because he had his legs crossed & the other guy came down on his legs. So, he spent the entire flight kneeing the seat of the guy in front of him.

    The guy in front was about 6’5″ and 250 – the guy in my row was a snowboarder with an attitude problem. I honestly thought they were gonna fight each other outside the jet bridge. They didn’t (unfortunately – it would have been a good fight to watch).

    Just a data point… 🙂

  14. If an airline seat reclines, then that space does not belong to the person in back but to the person in front. The person in front has just as much right to comfort as the person in back. It is long legged men who presume that they have the right to prevent the person in front from reclining. They do not have the right to comfort at my expense. I have disc degeneration and must constantly adjust the angle at which I sit or experience numbness in my arms and legs. When my right is acknowledged and I am asked politely, I will switch seats with the person in back. But do not assume that space is yours, it is not and you know that when you buy your ticket.

  15. How about a passenger’s right to use their laptop, or eat or drink in coach? All of which are destroyed by some entitled jerk shoving their seat back into the lap of the person behind them?

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