The Illusions of Reclining Seats on Airplanes — and How to Mitigate the Controversy

Cramped leg room — such as experienced on this Airbus A320 aircraft on a flight from Singapore to Denpasar on January 11, 2013 — is one reason some people adamantly oppose the reclining of seats on commercial aircraft. Photograph by FlyerTalk member z3rb. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by z3rb.

Aristotle is thought to have originated the phrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” — and that phrase seems to quite well describe the annoyances of seats which can be reclined on commercial aircraft.
FlyerTalk members have long been fiercely debating the issue of reclining seats with rather heated exchanges. In fact, reclining seats on commercial aircraft has for years been one of the most controversial topics on FlyerTalk, with many FlyerTalk members firmly-entrenched in at least two camps: those who recline, and those who do not like anyone reclining in the seat directly in front of them.
As Shakespeare might have so eloquently asked, “To recline or not to recline? That is the question.”
The latest salvo on the seat recline debate had been launched by Slate with an article controversial enough to cause a discussion on FlyerTalk to be closed. Is reclining your seat really pure evil?
Note that this is really a “class” issue, as the debate over reclining seats on commercial aircraft usually does not spill over into seating in premium class cabins, where legroom and seat pitch are usually not an issue. This is primarily an economy cabin class issue, where space is tight and you seemingly have to fight for every inch you can grab — including on the shared armrests. The issue of shared armrests is another topic for another day, however.
Basically, this is the debate in a nutshell: those who are for reclining seats want to be more comfortable and have more space as well as purportedly better air flow from an overhead vent; while those who are against reclining seats feel as though the passengers in the seats directly in front of them are encroaching on what little space they have…
…and no one is happy.
Although I never really was much into her comedy, I remember a routine performed by Ellen DeGeneres back in 1996 which I had always felt best illustrated how ridiculous is this conundrum of reclining seats on commercial aircraft:

…which is why I never really understood the debate. Are we really talking about a huge difference? The seat recline is only a few inches at most, if that. Why are people so adamant about whether or not a seat is reclined to the point where they might believe that it is a “God-given right”?
For example, FlyerTalk member mbwmbw claims to have been prohibited by a flight attendant from reclining his seat because the woman seated in front of him could not comfortably work on her large laptop computer; while FlyerTalk member aubreyfromwheaton accused an Air France flight attendant of pushing the button and abruptly “dereclining” him as he was asking the flight attendant to repeat what she said when he had his headphones on his head while listening to music.
Meanwhile, FlyerTalk member ajax claims that reclining a seat prompted a “violent reaction” from the passenger directly behind ajax, which included pushing and slamming into the seat occupied by ajax, accompanied by profanity and threats of violence. Although ajax reported the incident more than once, nothing was done other than ajax being advised by a flight attendant to not recline the seat for the duration of the flight.
Is it really a violation of seat recline etiquette to recline your seat for nine hours on an airplane?
The seat recline debate had even reportedly resulted in an aircraft on its way to Accra, Ghana returning to its point of origination at Washington Dulles International Airport while accompanied by two F-16 fighter jets for an emergency landing after a fight erupted between passengers — all because a passenger reclined his seat.
One enterprising company created a patented product called Knee Defender back in 2003 which prevents the passenger in front of you from reclining his or her seat. This product had reportedly been banned on some airlines — such as on United Airlines back in 2004 — but use of the product is supposedly not against the law, as long as it is not used during taxiing, takeoffs or landings of aircraft.
Really, folks? Aren’t we all supposed to be mature adults here? Could reclining your seat on a commercial airplane actually be considered inappropriate? Do we really need Knee Defenders and F-16 fighter jets to help settle this long-running debate once and for all — or should passengers not be able to recline in seats on commercial aircraft altogether?
Perhaps a fee should be charged for those passengers who want to recline their seats? If so, the fee should probably be paid to the passenger directly behind the reclined seat instead of to the airline to create a win-win situation…
…or should the passenger pay the person in front of him or her not to recline the seat — whether or not it is a bribe?
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.
  1. When you are six foot four it becomes an issue. In Economy my knees already touch the back of the seat in front of me when it is upright. I refuse to recline my seat because I know how much it irks me. The worst was when a child under ten reclined her seat on a flight from SYD to LAX.

  2. If it’s that much of an issue just pay for economy comfort seats/premium that supposedly have more room (also more pitch though so its a risk) or upgraded cabin. If someone wants to recline its their prerogative.

  3. I agree with FlyHigh23, pay for E+, Biz or First Class and you will get more room. It is unfortunate that airlines need to squeeze so many seats that this becomes an issue but it is life today and we must find a way to live with it. I do feel that there is a proper way to act and slamming a seat back into your neighbor behind you isn’t the most polite way to do it(which I have seen many times). Again, it is life and not everyone is as considerate as some of us are 🙂 Ain’t that the truth!

  4. The airlines don’t NEED to cram as many people as possible into Economy. They have chosen to. Otherwise, why would standard Economy seat pitch on various airlines vary from 30″ to 34″?
    Furthermore, in response to the poster who said “pay for Economy Plus, Business, or First,” I do pay for Economy Plus, if the airline has that, but the price structure is seriously out of whack.
    Because they have given so many free upgrades, the airlines have to charge exorbitant amounts for Business to break even, far above any conceivable costs of offering a couple of meals, a few drinks, and a larger seat: an average of six times the price of coach for Business Class and twelve times the price of coach for First. As such, anyone who says “Just buy Business Class” is seriously out of touch with the economic realities of the average person.

  5. Each passenger has paid for the entire seat …the armrest,tray table and yes the ability to recline. You PAY for the right to recline. You have paid to utilize your seat in the way it was designed to provide you comfort throughout your journey.

  6. Wasn’t finished. I am responsible for my comfort. The person behind me is resposible for theirs. When the person behind me buys a ticket, it would be unfair of that person to expect to utilze their entire seat for their comfort PLUS manipulate a seat paid for and occupied by someone else for YOUR comfort at the expense of THEIR’S! There are options. Drive, take a bus etc. When you go from point A to Point B you know the plus and minus of each mode of transport. I personally choose bulkhead because I don’t like someone putting their seat back in frot of me. If I can’t get bulkhead and end up in row 2,3,,or 4, I respect their right to fully recline the seat they paid for. I only ask that when it appears that a passenger needs to get into the aisle to use the bathroom etc, you politely move your seatback up as a courtesy as you would like if the roles were reversed. To not do that is just rude. So, recline it is. Afterall you are instucted to “Sit back, relax and if their is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable,don’t heistate to call on any one of us!”

  7. I think it is just as reasonable to argue that when you pay for a seat you pay for the air space above it. Someone reclining into that airspace takes what you have paid for away from you.
    Specifically I don’t like to look at the top of someone’s head. I feel I should be able to open my laptop and use it at a reasonable distance, not 9 inches from my eyes. Same with a book a paper.
    If you want to go brain dead and lay in my lap you can expect a paper on your head, my knees in their normal place which would then mean in your back, and me pulling on your seat and using it for support ( something I typically carefully avoid ) if I have to crawl out of the cave you have confined me in.
    All of this is just being responsible for my comfort.

  8. When in economy I usually don’t recline my seat back but may slouch or side my rear forward a bit to give the feeling of reclining. I also don’t usually mind the person in front of me reclining unless it is the violent recline which damages my laptop! People just need to relax and not be so uptight.

  9. This is easy.
    Go to the Website you booked your flight.
    Look at the description of the aircraft and seats.
    Does it describe width/pitch.
    Well that is what you are paying for.
    A flight, on that aircraft with that seat and pitch.
    If you were not supposed to recline, why do they ask us to bring our seats back to full upright position?

  10. “Does it describe width/pitch.
    Well that is what you are paying for.”
    Reclining takes the pitch away from you. That is the whole point. Where your knees are you end up with 27″ or some such. Where your head is you are ending up with 18″.

  11. My biggest problem is with the seat in front reclined you cant watch the tv as the tilt on the tv doesnt match the seat tilt. The only way I can sleep in economy is when i lean my head on the seat in front so reclining doent bother me as it makes it more comfy for sleeping.
    Upgrades drive up the cost of business class seats? Do you think they would be cheaper if empty?

  12. If you are of average height and the person in front of you is not reclining, it’s only common courtesy to not recline fully. Otherwise, you are forcing everyone behind you to either recline fully or to be very uncomfortable. Remember, do unto others….

  13. In E+, the man in front of me reclined his seat, and I could no longer keep my small MacBook Air open. I politely asked the man if he wouldn’t mine moving his seat an inch forward so I could work, and he did. I would have been happy to pay him.

  14. 5,000 mile voucher or $100 bill is incentive enough for me not to recline my seat on a short flight; otherwise, recline…

  15. Hate reclining seats? Fly Allegiant Air or Spirit Air. None of their seats recline including flights to HNL. And there is no business/first so no one gets to recline. Prices are on the low side so it fits the budget of people who can’t afford Ecoomy plus.
    This is the perfect airline for all of the recliner haters.

  16. Just as recently as this Feb 1st 2013, I was traveling from IAD to DOH and the passenger behind me asked me not to recline my seat. I was reclining my seat as the passenger in front of me decided to recline which result in TV being hardly few inches away from my eye. I called the cabin crew member for help and she advised me to not recline completely as the passenger behind me was overweight but told nothing to the passenger in front of me as I’m not overweight. Its a 13 hours flight and now tell me how am I suppose to feel. I feel as those the airline took away my space, which exactly what happened as the passenger in-front of me was able to recline and I was not. Also it resulted in me not able to watch movies as the monitor was too close to my eyes and it started paining when I gave it a try. Now tell me how you would be handling an issue similar to this where the compromise is only from your-side and not from others.

  17. Before joining FT, I had no idea that one shouldn’t recline. I’ve always reclined, the person in front of me has always reclined. If it was bad manners, then why give the choice?
    I use my laptop and it all works out.

  18. If you want to use a laptop and have it fully open, you should fly business class.
    If you are fat and won’t have any room if a seat reclines, you should fly business class.
    If you have a sense of entitlement and think you should be able to dictate what the equally uncomfortable econo pax in front of you must do, you should fly business class.
    If you can’t handle the amount of room in econo class in general, you should fly business class.
    If you really can’t stand any other passengers at all, you should charter your own jet.

  19. Pure evil? The AIRLINES are pure evil! They created this problem and can solve it. By allowing airline seats to recline, the airlines are explicitly giving permission to passengers to recline their seats. If the passenger behind doesn’t like it, get an economy comfort (or plus) seat, exit seat, business class seat, first class seat or shut up and suffer!

  20. It really comes down to how tall you are. On most planes in coach my knees touch the back of the seat in front of me when the seat in front of me is in the upright position. So when someone reclines I have no where to go. I’ve had people throwing themselves into the seat back trying to get it to recline as it’s smashing my knees. I tap them on the shoulder and explain that I’m sorry but I can’t make myself smaller. I think with the seats as tight as they are the airlines should remove the feature or maybe just have a reclining section and non-reclining section. It could be revenue enhancement maybe charge $20 for the recline option as a feature or maybe have only “economy plus” type seats with the recline function.

  21. The AIRLINE executives should ALL be required to sit in coach. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. so they can see how it feels to fly in coach, because I am certain those high up don’t even look behind them from first class.
    I am 6’4” 180 lbs, as soon as I got to an age where I could afford business/first class I have not flown coach…unless it was emergency row exits or bulkhead. There was just once, on Kuwait Airlines, a 1 hour flight from Dubai to Kuwait, I sat in coach, I had push myself up to fit into the seat…but I dealt with it because I paid for coach.

  22. This discussion just shows how underdeveloped and immature human beings are.
    Look, this is very simple: seat reclines, that means you are allowed to use this feature unless instructed otherwise by airline (and they better have a damn good reason).
    Now before you get all yappy about the seat in front of you recline, recline your own seat and do the simple trigonometry. if 2 lines remain parallel, the distance between them at any point will not change. That means, you ARE NOT GETTING LESS personal space or leg room! Grow a brain! it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out!
    When I fly I simply accept that the person in front of me is going to recline, so I arrange my table and personal belongings accordingly. Did you know that if you put all the magazines and stuff from seat pocket in front of you to overhead bins, you get more space? It’s a fact of life, just as the fact that I didn’t work hard enough to afford business class, the guy in front of you will recline and so will I. I do it slowly so that the person behind can get the idea of whats about to happen, but I do not need to ask them for permission.
    One thing I would like to comment on is how Japanese airlines are insisting that all passengers go upfront for meals? This makes no sense at all. Airline seats are designed to keep the tables leveled. They are saying that with belief that it would “not annoy the passenger behind you”, but the reality is that the ones who are most annoying is the CA’s and their stupid airlines themselves! If they don’t want the pax to be annoyed, maybe they should look into things, like more legroom, better cushioned seats, remove stupid box from under isle seats, better food (JAL), more sorts of ice cream, and for fx’s sake half descent pair of headphones! Or how about having enough food for everyone? Is that too much to ask for?
    Maybe then they can ask the passengers to be less invasive to one other, but right now they are using paying customers to sacrifice their own last thing of what’s left of that pathetic excuse of comfort to make the airline look a bit better.

  23. “you ARE NOT GETTING LESS personal space or leg room! ” Certainly less leg room. The front seat tilts into that area and tilting your own seat does not move your hips backward, only your torso. To understand this draw a picture of two airline seats with the seatbacks upright. Draw a stick figure sitting in the second seat with it’s thigh bones parallel to the floor and the knees touching the back of the front seat. What happens if the first seat tries to recline? The seat can not go backward. If the person in the second seat then reclines their seat, this does not shorten their leg bones. The recline tilts the torso but does not move the hips backward. The length of the thigh bone is the same and the knees are still touching the back of the seat in front.

  24. They should simply build seats that only recline to the front. So, if you want to recline, you are moving the seat base (where you have your butt on) to the front. The top of the seatback stays put. Of course, you can only do this, if you have short legs, but imho this would be the only fair deal for the passenger behind you, he will not be threatened in his personal (leg) space. He will probably not be able to recline his own seat, but if he is tall, he isnt a fan of reclining seats anyway.

  25. It’s not just a class issue. I was recently on an AA flight in F where passenger A across the way was eating and watching a movie (with his seat reclined). The person in front of him (B) reclined their seat. Unfortunately, person A had their iPad (or similar) propped up against the seat in front of them. When the seat reclined, the iPad somehow got jammed and the screen broke. Person A was demanding that AA or person B pay for the damage. Not sure how it ended up, but he argued out in the terminal for at least another 30 minutes. My take is it’s his own fault for putting the iPad in a spot where it could be damaged.

  26. On some flights I have asked the person sitting in front of me if they could raise their seat back a little so I could use my laptop. Almost all have returned their seat back to upright position. Today I mentioned to the passenger I understand they want to relax and reclining is part of that experience, however, they may want to let the passenger behind them know before doing so as she nearly cracked my display and that another passenger may not be as understanding. Again, seat back straight up.

  27. I really hate when people jam their seat back thoughtlessly so that – as reported above – my computer may be damaged. I think everyone has the right to recline, but it is good manners to at least glance behind you first. I usually do that (at the least) to check there are no computers at risk, and then put it back slowly so the person has time to adjust if need be.

  28. I think this problem is created by the airline when they charge a ridiculous price for the shittiest seat on the plane. It makes you feel entitled to recline your seat or not want the person in front of you to do so.

  29. interesting.
    the more I read , the more I felt : the end result is 50:50
    50% says it is ok to recline , if anyone complain about space in economy then they should find other alternative
    50% says it is not ok to recline
    maybe I am wrong. if you really tally the number, I think more people will say “it is ok to recline” but who is keeping score 🙂

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