Airplane Seat War: The Definitive Truth About Your Right To Recline Vs. Society’s Right To Be Let Alone

Good Morning America took on the question of whether or not it’s ok to recline your seat on a plane? Reclining makes a tight seat behind you even tighter, but the hosts ‘blame the airline’ for that. Honestly thought shouldn’t they blame the passenger, because that’s the product they purchased, rather than one that’s roomier?

Here’s the segment, and then the truth about reclining seats on planes.

Seat recline is important for passengers on long flights with poorly-padded seats. Recline works to distribute passenger weight and reduce back stress. Reclining is also a basic right when it’s a feature of your seat (certain airlines like Spirit and Frontier feature seats they call “pre-reclined” i.e. that do not recline).

  • A passenger controls their own seat
  • Airlines ban the Knee Defender device, which prevents recline – a device was designed to stop reclining. While their interest is prevent damage to the seat, they do not allow the passenger seated behind to interfere with the recline function

There is an etiquette to exercising your right to recline:

  1. Don’t recline during mealtime.
  2. Try not to recline unless it serves a real purpose (if it doesn’t actually benefit your comfort, don’t recline).
  3. Let them know you’re going to recline, and do it gently. That helps keep this from happening:

If you don’t want the passenger in front of you to recline, politely ask them not to. And if they want to recline and you don’t want them to, consider whether it’s worth your while to make not reclining worth their while. Many years ago all it took was $5 (offered with a parent’s permission) for me to convince a child seated in front of me not to recline so that I could work effectively on my laptop.

The product you’re buying in a standard coach seat usually does not offer very much space. Keep in mind that both Southwest Airlines and JetBlue offer more space than United, Delta, or American. Not all airlines are the same!

And many airlines offer premium products, whether extra legroom or first class, that you can purchase. Maybe it’s worth the extra money. Sometimes it isn’t much extra at all and this even exists on Spirit Airlines.

Whatever you do, though, don’t go all vigilante on the seat recliner in front of you by turning the air vents on full blast and aiming them at the top of that passenger’s head. And don’t push the seat that’s reclined in front of you, either. That’s just a recipe for conflict:

We’re in tight quarters up in a plane. A little patience and grace, and we’ll all get through this together.

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, 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. People who recline are in one of 2 groups.
    1). I’ll recline if I want to, for as long as I want and to hell with the person behind
    2). Those who say .. “Do you mind if I recline my seat

    Sadly 95% of passengers are in the Number 1 group .. are selfish and self centered

    I wish more airlines would fit seats that do not recline in economy

  2. 100% of people who say that people who recline are self centered and entitled are the ones who are actually self centered and entitled ….

    I’ve flown over 2 million miles. Don’t care if the person in front of me redlines and I will slowly recline if I need more comfort. It’s not hard. Seems to only be an issue on the west. Never had any issues in Asia no matter how low cost the airline.

  3. This again.

    As long as my seat offers recline, I’m going to use it. And no, I’m not going to ask you just like I’m not going to ask you if it’s okay to pull down my tray table, open/close the window blind, get permission to go to the bathroom or direct my air con.

    I do it slowly and often not as far as it will go.

    And no, I’m not going to swap seats with you, your spouse, your child or other relatives.

    I’m also not going to play music at volume or let my children play his/her iPad game thing at volume with buzzers, whistles and other stupid annoying sounds. Or talk LOUDLY on my phone which is being held like some WWII walkie talkie.

    Some of these are annoying as 5 pop-ups on a site where you can barely read the content.

  4. I am 66 and fly between 50 and 75 flights per year. I have never had the person in front of me ask if I minded if they reclined. It does not bother me if someone reclines. However I do find it irritating to have a child continuously kick the back of my seat or have someone grab the top of my seat to pull their fat ass from their seat.

  5. Leroy

    I may or may not have accidentally thrown my drink backward when someone grabbed the back of my seat 3 times on a flight. I wasn’t reclined and he literally jerked me backward.

    The 3rd time, that glass I was holding just flew backward with force. He didn’t touch my seat again for the rest of the flight.

  6. And DO NOT USE A STANDARD LAPTOP in a standard coach/economy seat. You are asking for a disaster if you do
    If you absolutely need to use your laptop, use a Microsoft Surface or Apple IPad or pay to sit in first class or keep your laptop out from under the “lip” of the seat in front of you.

  7. “I may or may not have accidentally thrown my drink backward when someone grabbed the back of my seat 3 times on a flight. I wasn’t reclined and he literally jerked me backward.”

    Much simpler solution that won’t get you in trouble, especially after they waken you for the third time doing this. Quietly press the recline button as they grab the seat and watch them fall on their ass. Turn around and look stunned, like they pulled so hard the seat reclined itself. And then leave it reclined.

  8. I’ll be perfectly polite with other passengers when it comes to reclining, but the choice sits with the recliner, not the person behind them, full stop. If everyone on the plane all reclined their seats, everyone would be more comfortable. The only people negatively affected would be people trying to work on a large laptop and they can deal with that in other ways. It’s not my responsibility to sit straight as a board because they wouldn’t pay for an extended legroom seat OR bring a smaller device OR get their work/activities done at some time other than on a flight. If their employer expects them to work while not paying for adequate work space, that’s between them and their employer, not them and me.

  9. I’ve had two situations recently where I’ve paid the person in front of me $20 to not recline. Not ideal, but a small price to pay to still be able to work on my computer.

  10. I can’t believe there are those that have a problem with the person in front of you reclining their seat. There are other options out there if you can’t deal with this. You can book a bulkhead seat. You can fly on a budget airline where the seats don’t recline. You can buy a first class seat.

  11. It’s usually a smallish person ramming their seat back to pretend they are some potentate.
    Try sitting in any seat, any class on any airline if you are a full grown male.
    It’s fricking torture to get up from your seat. Luckily I usually fly with my wife who is only 5’6 and we switch seats after I cough up a few hair balls onto the top of the head of the person who did not ask to recline. Once fully reclined I can’t even lower my tray or get out of the seat or enjoy the dog food being served. I have not purchased a seat in over 20 years (use ff miles) which is the only reason I’ll fly. If I paid for that abuse I’d be a masochist. Wake up! be respectful or you might get your *!* handed to you.
    Ask and you might be pleasantly surprised by the response and a compromise is always better than the fight you will lose.

  12. Paul, you should not fly. People with anger issues should simply stay at home, and yell at kids to stay off their lawn.

  13. I usually look at the passenger behind me and if they are reclined (or asleep) I’ll go ahead and recline my seat. If not, I only need about 1″ of recline to ease my back that aches if the seat is completely upright, and politely let the person behind me know I’ll be reclining but only about an inch.

    I can’t afford first class but can usually afford to pay for a slightly better seat like the exit row.

  14. oh yeah – if i’m stuck in back and you recline in to my face i will do everything i can to make your life a living hell

    i carry a small spray bottle of cough syrup just for the occasion – it will stay in your hair for weeks unless you cut it out

    fortunately i’ve managed to ride up front for 3+ years – but the blond karen can stuff it – on a daytime non-transcon domestic NO ONE has the right to recline – those of you that SAY you have the “right to recline’ – show me the fricking federal case law or US Code that says so

    i don’t have the right to be a bitch about it either, but that won’t stop me, because, abracadabra, it’s obviously not stopping you

    ‘wherever you go, there you are’
    -b.banzai, 1984

  15. Seat recline problems were created by the airlines and it seems that they will only be solved by laws for the most part. The model of pre-reclined seats is a good one and should be in place on all airplanes for seats with a pitch of less than 32 inches. Beyond that is the problem of seat padding and shape. I usually put my airplane pillow in the small of my back area to keep from getting backaches.

  16. Can’t tell if Haggard is trolling or not, but if the seat has a recline function, you have the right to use it. The airline sets the rules, and enabling seat functionality and giving me the controls tells you who has the discretion (me).

  17. Patti is 100% right. I once had an entitled passenger behind me in coach on a long flight ask me not to recline. I suggested that, if she could get the guy in front of me not to recline, I would do it. It shut her up.
    I am not going to ask you if I can recline for the same reason I won’t ask a potential FIL for permission to marry his daughter: it isn’t going to change what I do. I only ask those out-of-courtesy questions where you don’t really wait for an answer (e.g. you’re in an elevator and ask if you get through when arriving at a floor). I recline slowly and will summon a FA if the person says anything.

  18. If someone reclines slowly and politely it doesn’t bother me. But I’ve had people throw their seat back like they were trying to kick down a door.

    That will invite a response every time. Touch screens are a beautiful thing. Sometimes I just can’t decide what to watch and if you don’t push extra hard it may not work.

    And when I get the dirty stare I let them know my screen seems to be having issues.

    Your right to recline versus my right to use my touch screen. If airlines didn’t want me to poke the back of your seat they wouldn’t put a touch screen there. See how that works? We can all be airholes.

    See what I did there. Made up a new word for y’all. And airborn asshole. Airhole. Be polite or expect an equal response.

  19. If someone reclines their economy seat into me then they will get my knees in their back. This is not out of spite but because I’m 6’4″ and literally have no other place to put my knees. I’ll get aching knees out of it so it’s no party for me either. Wherever reasonably possible I’ll pay more for an exit row/bulkhead/higher class of service but sometimes that’s not a viable option. As not to be a hypocrite I almost never recline unless I’m in long haul business or first class so as not to visit the reclined seat agony I get upon others.

  20. If someone in front of me reclines I’m fine with that because it’s their right. If they werent meant to recline then the seat wouldnt have the feature. In turn, I make sure to travel with a smaller laptop and keep the display edge away from the seat back as much as possible.

  21. Blog posts like this tell people it’s their “right” recline because they paid for a seat that does yet go on to tell us how it’s unpolite to do during mealtimes. You can’t have it both ways you either have “I paid for my reclining seat and I sure as hell will recline during mealtime so I can lean back and enjoy my food” or you have people who don’t want to infringe on the people’s space behind them (that space they paid for).

    People talked about how they paid for that seat and the recline yet they wouldn’t do the same to a backseat passenger in their car. It’s rude to recline during most flights, you could argue that redeyes when everyone is sleeping but it’s still splitting hairs. It is the airline’s fault for putting the seats too close together but just because they ruined the comfort doesn’t mean you have to play along.

  22. If the seat reclines I use it if I want to, except at mealtimes when I try to be considerate to the person behind due to the tray table spacing issue. However if the person in front reclines than I have to recline also. If the cabin staff want to have people put their seat up for meals they need to tell all of us. So if the seat in front reclines, you should just recline your seat also – this keeps the same spacing as without recline. I really don’t see what the issue is, other than someone doesn’t want to recline to keep the same spacing – that’s their prerogative.

  23. Your comfort ends when it impacts my comfort. I try to get a bulkhead row, or an exit row where the seats can’t recline, but sometimes those seats are unavailable. I’m tall and my legs are usually against the seat in front of me, sometimes right against the hinge of the seat. When you recline your seat you effective press your seat, or that hinge, into my knees. So what gives you the right to incringe upon my space, when it causes me discomfort?

    If that seat is so uncomfortable for you, why don’t YOU upgrade to the 1st class ticket? I may not be able to upgrade to a 1st class ticket. If it’s a business trip, and I am not paying for the ticket, I don’t have that option. All I can do for that is to see if I can get upgraded to a 1st class seat at the airport, but I am not going to pay hundreds for that 1st class seat, when all you need to do is be courteous and not recline.

  24. A number of you are looking at this all wrong. Your available space is with the seat in front of you reclined, not when it is upright. Therefore, reclining the seat isn’t “infringing on your space”, it isn’t your space to begin with. If you are uncomfortable with that, don’t fly that airline, pay for more room, whatever. Take Greyhound or Amtrak if you are a Karen flyer. Don’t blame the person in front of you.

  25. I know all of the recliners out there will strongly disagree with this, but I liked the seats that moved the bottom cushion forward when you reclined. If you want to recline, you lose your legroom rather than the person behind you losing their legroom. So the person behind you might lose a bid of “head” space, but gain a small amount of additional legroom.

  26. This is a problem that the airline caused so they should come up with a solution. They should let everyone know that reclining during mealtimes is inconsiderate towards the person behind and therefore not acceptable. Reclining is only acceptable for when the lights go out.

  27. I am a fairly small adult (5’2″ if you are feeling generous), so the knee room and reclining thing has never bothered me. I am usually fine sitting upright for a couple hours, so don’t generally recline my seat. However, as much as I do understand taller and larger people feeling cramped, I can’t stand SIDEWAYS spread. I have had taller people (always men) spread their knees and elbows far into my space, squishing me to one side of my seat. I don’t mind a person hogging the arm rest, but STAY OUT OF MY SEAT SPACE no matter how big you are. I paid for my space. If you need more, buy it. Don’t take mine, and don’t, no matter what, put your legs against mine or your elbows in my ribs. I knit on planes, and might need to put my knitting needle where you have crossed the invisible line. (Okay, I probably won’t actually do that, but I WILL scream “don’t touch me!” if my first polite request is ignored.)

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