Etihad Airways economy class seats
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Reclining Seat Aboard Airplanes Debate: What If the Seat Is Vacated?

pparently, a minor controversy pertaining to a seat reclined while it is vacated — part of the reclining seat aboard airplanes debate — was sparked as the result of this recent article which I posted; but first, please allow me to reiterate my thoughts regarding this issue.

In this article originally posted on Friday, February 22, 2013 pertaining to this controversial issue of seat recline, I wrote the following:

I personally have never really understood why there is such a big deal pertaining to seat recline. I never had a problem with someone in front of me who decided to recline his or her seat; nor have I had an issue with someone who was seated directly behind me whenever I reclined my seat. I do like to recline my seat even if the additional comfort is only marginal at best — but since learning of how adamant are FlyerTalk members on either side of this issue, I have since asked the passenger behind me if he or she minds if I recline my seat.

In my opinion, the problem stems more from a lack of consideration and respect for fellow passengers rather than from the issue of comfort. Passengers should be able to quickly work out a compromise without having to resort to confrontations to resolve what should be a simple minor issue at best. If passengers were more polite, considerate and respectful of each other, this whole debate over the recline of seats on commercial aircraft would be a minor issue at best — if at all.

When I wrote those statements, I have had passengers sit in front of me and recline for much of the duration of the flight — even on long-haul flights — but on what I called the worst Etihad Airways flight I have ever taken, the passenger in front of me would vacate the seat and leave it reclined. When she would not return immediately, I reached forward and pressed the button so that I could give myself some room while she was gone — usually for greater than a few minutes.

That was the second long-haul flight on which I was a passenger where I experienced the seat in front of me being reclined but vacated, as the first time this happened was aboard an airplane operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines from Doha to Amsterdam — and nobody chastised me in the Comments section of that article for reaching forward and pushing the button to de-recline the seat.

That was not the case after posting the article pertaining to the flight operated by Etihad Airways, however.

Matthew — a reader of The Gatecommented that “While I’m not a seat recliner myself, I think it’s bold to ask a fellow passenger to not recline. That is technically their right when they purchased the seat. I cannot believe you reached around to press the button every time she left! How long could she have possibly been gone for? Five minutes? I hope your temporary relief was worth meddling in her business.”

In answer to that question, she was gone for as long as 45 minutes each time — but does Matthew have a point?

“You got lucky”, posted Will — another reader of The Gate — in the Comments section. “The person in front of you has a right to recline. Most would of told you to pound sand. Sometimes those awesome fare deals don’t always turn out to be awesome in real life.”

Although I found part of that comment funny because my feet literally did pound sand for a significant part of the time I was in the Middle East, Will is absolutely correct: the person in front of me does have a right to recline, in my opinion; and yes, I was lucky that the person agreed to not recline when I asked her a full ten hours into the flight, with greater than three hours remaining. I do not believe there is anything wrong with asking — especially after ten hours — and I did ask her in a polite manner.

The last paragraph to end this article which I wrote — Should Seats Which Recline and Not Recline Be Sectioned Off From Each Other? — stated:

For the record, I have never had an issue with a person in front of me who decided to recline his or her seat. I would think that if it ever did bother me, I would politely ask that the person in front of me please consider not reclining. If the person was reasonable enough, a compromise could be worked out where the person could recline for half of the flight and not recline for the other half.

Especially as the person in front of me had her seat reclined for two-thirds of the long flight, I thought that I was being fair and considerate, as I can understand her wanting to sleep during the flight; but she was awake at the point when I politely placed my request to her; and I did want to at least have some time to work on my laptop computer, which would not fully open while on the tray table as long as the seat in front of me was reclined.

There certainly was no confrontation or escalating aggression, as reportedly happened when two passengers were embroiled in a heated argument pertaining to a reclined seat aboard an airplane which operated as United Airlines flight 1462 over seat recline on Sunday, August 24, 2014 — resulting in the airplane being diverted to Chicago, where police and agents of the Transportation Security Administration were summoned.

Although it was really not a problem, it was also slightly more difficult to dine on a meal; and the passenger in front of me ate her food leaning forward while her seat was reclined. I personally would have found dining that way uncomfortable, in my opinion — but, to each his or her own, I suppose.

Joey — yet another reader of The Gateresponded to the article that “I would have asked the passenger in front of you to kindly not recline during meal times. That’s it though. You didn’t mention whether you reclined your seat.”

Normally, what I would do is ask the person in a polite request to please do something — whatever that something may be — but if the person is not there, how can I place the request?

Nevertheless, I agree with Joey. Perhaps I should have asked the passenger in front of me when she returned to her seat that she please not leave the seat reclined whenever she vacated it; and perhaps she was more clueless — that is not meant to be an insult, by the way — than thoughtless, as I do not believe she intentionally was trying to be inconsiderate…

…and as to whether I reclined my seat during that flight: yes, I did — but not during meal time; not while I was working on the laptop computer; and certainly not when I vacated my seat. Even then, my seat was not always reclined; and whenever I turned around to the passenger behind me — the one who repeatedly burped loudly throughout the flight — to ask, he was either sleeping, engaged in conversation with other fellow passengers around him, or not sitting in his seat at that moment.

Despite my opinion that passengers indeed do have a right to recline their seats during times when it is not prohibited, my recent experience — as well as the the responses to that article pertaining to the ongoing debate about reclining seats aboard airplanes — had me thinking:

  • Does a person have a right to have his or her seat reclined while he or she vacates it?
  • If so, for how long is it deemed acceptable? Five minutes? Ten minutes? An hour?!?
  • Does the length of a flight factor into this equation?
  • What if a delay — when added to the length of the flight — further exacerbated the situation?


What are your thoughts?

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

  1. Brian,

    Again, you are right on point. The person in front does have the right to recline as you already agree. While they aren’t required to de-recline when leaving it would be considerate to do so. If you notice they leave for long periods, there is no harm in doing it yourself. In fact, they might not even notice it in some instances, and if so, they can simply put it back. I think it is fine if the person leaves for large chunks of time. For a short flight, say less than 2 hours, I would say suck it up, it’s not a long enough flight to even make it an issue. (Yes I once had a guy in front of me on a EWR-ORD flight immediately jam his seat back as soon as he sat down at the gate. From gate to taxi, (the FA then told him twice to put it up) then as soon as the wheels left the ground it came flying back. However, lets say you are on a Qantas flight LAX-SYD and the person in front of you leaves to talk with someone or for whatever reason and is gone for an hour. IMO, there is nothing wrong with you de-reclining it yourself on a 15 hour flight.

    1. I have never had any issue with the passenger seated in front of me reclining on short-haul flights and medium-haul flights, Captain Kirk; and rarely do I have similar issues on long-haul flights.

      Come to think of it, I do not believe the passenger in front of me noticed that the seat was not reclined when she returned — other than when she simply reclined it again, of course. From what I could see, she showed no signs of being irritated, annoyed or confused.

      If the person vacates his or her seat while it remains reclined, I do not see why it cannot be de-reclined while that person is gone. The only purpose of a reclined seat is to improve comfort for the passenger sitting in it; and if the passenger is not sitting in the seat, then the recline function of that seat serves no purpose at all whatsoever — similar to leaving a fan on in a room which is occupied by no one, which does not cool the room any more than when the fan is off.

      It is not like it takes all that much time or effort to recline the seat once again when the person returns; and it is not as though there is some position which the person selected that needs to be “remembered” — unlike those powered seats found in the premium class cabin of the aircraft…

  2. I just did IAD-NRT-SIN-NRT-ORD recently and I have reclined my seat. I tried to think to put it up during meals, but I must admit that if the person in front of me has their seat reclined, it makes it hard for me to eat if my seat is not reclined as my head keeps bumping in their reclined seat when I try to take a bite.

    That said, it never crossed my mind to put my seat up when I would stand to stretch in the back of the plane. I was gone for a while sometimes, not just 5 minutes, but I really didn’t think to put my seat up. Maybe next time.

    So since it never crossed my mind to put my seat up when I vacated my seat, it obviously didn’t bother me when the person in front of me left their seat reclined when they vacated their seat.

    I think that my biggest complain when it comes to seat recline is during meal time. Everyone should have their seat up during meals. Other than that, I don’t care!

    1. Awareness is key in my opinion, Marc. I think we should all try to help each other be more comfortable in order for as many people as possible to have a pleasant flight; and if that means being aware of how our actions affect others around us and being able to correct them or improve on them — especially with little effort — then why not do it?

      Some people do not mind when the seat is reclined in front of them. Some mind very much and are quite vocal about it…

      …and then there is the person who minds very much but is hesitant to say anything or ask. You or I never know if we are causing discomfort to a fellow passenger who does not help to bring about awareness so that we may correct ourselves.

      If something is bothering you, there is nothing wrong with expressing so in a civil manner and then politely asking for a solution or two with which everyone can be happy.

  3. If you can’t sleep in the default position, an extra 5 degrees is unlikely to help. Save some weight in seat design, save some argument over the stupid thing and delete the feature. Like seatback IFE in coach, it’s an anachronism that has outlived it’s era.

  4. You bet I’d push the seat up button when they left their seat. Essentially I get a break when they take a break. No harm, no foul. I think most people are completely unaware of what they are doing to the person behind them. Finding their seat up when they return sends an polite non-verbal message that they’re infringing on my space. At least if they push the chair back again they know full well that their comfort comes at my expense. I never lean my chair back out of consideration for the person behind me.

  5. Im with Vicente. I get so little enjoyment out of reclining my seat and very much dislike when people recline into me. That is the one place I agree with Spirit. I have to imagine the recline feature could be a casualty of smaller seats in the next decade. Not allowing people to recline allows you to decrease pitch slightly (as Spirit shows). The airlines may well decide that people only buy tickets on price and get rid of the recline feature in order to cram in another row of seats.

    1. Perhaps those of use who purchase airfares solely on price alone might indeed be part of the blame, DAN. Airlines are for-profit companies which search for new ways to increase those profits; and stuffing another row of seats in lieu of the recline function is indeed a possibility…

      …but that would also further decrease comfort aboard the aircraft, which could then increase intolerance and aggression amongst passengers who feel too closed in.

      There has to be a threshold where the airline can still reasonably profit while passengers can be reasonably comfortable. There are times where I wish we could all work together as a community to make that — as well as other situations and experiences which could benefit society in general — happen…

  6. Technically someone does have the right to recline, but I agree it is all about awareness, consideration and communication. The airlines install a product that makes it difficult for people in any seat to get out of even without the seat reclined. If there was an emergency situation and an empty seat (especially aisle) was reclined it would make it more difficult for passengers to evacuate. Therefore, in the same way that bins are closed when not being used, it might be thoughtful for someone to bring their seat to the fully upright position when vacating.

    1. There are times where I have sat in a seat where the recline function is broken and the seat reclines no matter what the passenger seated in it does…

      …but what you wrote gave me an idea, Melinda: what if there was a seat which automatically de-reclined into its full and upright position every time the passenger vacated it — if it does not already exist?

      That would especially help in the unlikely event of an emergency where pressing the button to return the seat to its upright position would be the last thing on the minds of passengers who may be panicking…

  7. Why is this article so long? If she was gone from the seat, especially for 45 min, it’s no harm to her that you put her seat back up. She can always recline it again. I think everyone agrees with the point passengers have a right to recline, but should be considerate of others.

  8. I would have thought that you were being rude by unreclining the seat when I got up. I would rather the person in front of me not constantly recline and unrecline every time he got up, especially if I had something on my tray table. However, seats should never recline during meal service. Delta usually tells pax to kindly put seats back up during meal service.

    By unreclining the seat every time I got up, I would have thought you were sending a passive aggressive message that I can’t recline at all, including while I was in the seat.

    1. I’d like to add that by not putting my seat up every time I got up , I am not trying to be inconsiderate. Rather the opposite. I would think you’d rather my seat not go up and down up and down. But then again, I’m never away for more than a few minutes at a time. But if you’d asked if I could put my seat up when I got up then of course it’s no problem for me if I’m not sitting in it.

  9. I feel lucky if the passenger in front of me just reclines slowly. People that slam it back are being inconsiderate, IMO. And while I don’t truly see the need for reclining seats on short haul flights, long haul is different. Maybe as part of the announcements after boarding, cabin crew (or video) can note that if leaving your seat for an extended time, bring your seat up while gone.

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!