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We Need To Come To A National Consensus On Airplane Seat Reclining

Some people are amazed that people recline their airplane seats. But others say they have the right to do just that. It’s time to settle the matter.

Editor’s Note: In light of recent reports that fights over seat reclining have led to flight diversions, we are reprinting this call for a national conversation about airplane seat reclining. We can achieve airline peace in our time. Do it for America.

Last week I was flying from Los Angeles to Dallas on US Airways. I love air travel and how it enables quick trips my ancestors couldn’t even dream of. I generally try to keep in mind what a blessing it is and this perspective helps me deal cheerfully with smelly passengers, crying babies, crowded planes and embarrassingly declining in-flight service.

I’m on my flight and I pull out my laptop, because another one of the wonders of air travel these days is that you get wifi and can otherwise work on your computer — all while flying through the sky. It’s awesome. Twenty minutes later, the person in front of me reclines into my laptop.

I tweeted out my take on this:

I’m still sort of amazed that people recline their seats on planes.

The responses flowed in, including:

  • YES! I always think, “What kind of psychopath is sitting in front of me?”
  • When I am King, this will be a capital offense.
  • That’s when I let my 4-year-old sit on my lap. Take THAT!
  • It’s an invitation for me to rest my knees into the back of their seat for the duration of the flight.
  • They tend to raise it when I keep kicking the back of their seat…

See? Seat reclining leads to complete civilizational collapse! I thought it obvious that no right-thinking person would recline their airplane seat but in another forum where I posted the same sentiment (Facebook) the feedback was mixed. Among the five dozen or so responses were people who actually favored or otherwise defended seat reclining! People I know and care for:

“We aren’t supposed to recline? I had no idea.”
  • Varying the angle really does help my back. But no need to break laptops of the people behind me!
  • I always recline my seat. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve never been bothered by someone else reclining. I expect them to recline. (this comment received six “likes”!)
  • I had no idea this was a thing, if we all recline we are even…
  • I do because of the back thing, but I try to give an obvious look behind me to see if a laptop is there and to nod in some way that I’m leaning back slowly.
  • We aren’t supposed to recline!?!?!? I had no idea. Everyone in front of me always reclines, and I do as well. Hum. (The person who wrote this is Canadian. Enough said.)
  • Spending up to 60 hours a month on airplanes, I ALWAYS recline. I do so without an ounce of remorse.
  • The fact of the matter, these seats were designed before laptops and their purpose is to provide a “certain amount” of comfort, not office space. I sympathize with the desire to get something done, but I paid for a seat that will recline a bit, you didn’t pay extra to take that away from the person in front of you
  • If we should not recline the seat, then why is it designed to be reclined?

There were also the people opposed to seat reclining:

“I treat the area of air space directly behind the unreclined seat as the DMZ. Once the DMZ has been infiltrated, I reserve the right to rest my newspaper atop the violator’s head.”
  • It has become horribly selfish since seat spacing is so close
  • I just lean forward and rest my head on the top of their seat. Works great. Also letting the toddler play with the tray table is effective.
  • I treat the area of air space directly behind the unreclined seat as the DMZ. Once the DMZ has been infiltrated, I reserve the right to rest my newspaper atop the violator’s head. I’d prefer to do work, but hey, when life gives you lemons…
  • I don’t let people recline. If you sit in front of me, sorry, short of me getting an amputation, you aren’t going to be able to put that seat back.
  • It’s the ultimate in self-regard. Everybody knows (or should) that any leaning back comes strictly at the expense of the person behind you.
  • I also think you can tell those who have frequently flown (the non-recliners) and those who rarely fly (the recliners)

What we have here is complete and utter chaos! There is absolutely no shared understanding of when or even whether it’s OK to recline your airplane seat into the limited space of the traveler behind you. It’s time to rectify this situation with a national conversation.

Who Is To Blame?

Perhaps rather than turning this into the Great Airplane Seat Reclining War of 2014 we should be focusing on those responsible for shoving seats ever closer together. Isn’t the real problem poor airline management, unions, TSA and government regulations? It’s not like seat reclining etiquette is an ancient problem. When air travel was glamorous and didn’t resemble a ride on an overcrowded bus in the worst suburb of Bangalore, passengers weren’t freaking out about seat positions. Airlines used to compete for travelers by being the best. Now they compete for travelers by being the least worst. Actually, I’m not entirely sure they’re even trying for that any more. The average amount of space between seats has declined from 34 inches a few decades ago to between 30 and 32 inches today, according to the New York Times. Some are down to a horrifying 28 inches.

Check out this supposed picture of what flights were like in the decades before people thought “Juicy” sweats were the best option for a day of travel:


But the fact is that we all want low fares and the best way to lower fares is to get more people in each plane. It’s of course possible that the government, unions and airline managers are all conspiring to make us miserable, but it’s also true that this is just a response to market demand. At the very least, we have played a role in the declining amount of space. We need to take responsibility for how to respond to that lack of space.

We need guidelines on when, if ever, it’s OK to recline one’s seat.

Tall People Suffer

First things first. Even though I’m super short, I’m married to a tall guy (6-foot-5). His legs take up every available inch. When someone reclines, they recline directly into his knees. It’s ridiculously painful. This is why sells Knee Defenders — neat doohickeys that prevent reclining on the part of the passenger in front of you.

And it’s not just men, obviously. My friend Carrie is super-leggy and tall and she pleads, “I think a reclining seat in front of you is definitely more problematic for us tall folks… when your knees are already jammed against the back of the seat in front of you while sitting upright it can be downright miserable to lose any space.”

Other friends agree. One said, “As a tall person, it’s already nearly impossible to work on a laptop on a plane (the screen viewing angle is just too steep). A reclined seat in front of you ratchets it up to completely impossible, and reclining your own seat doesn’t help. It’s also no fun when your knees are already touching the seat in front of you pre-recline.”

And another wrote, “I’ve had my knees crushed many a time by ignorant people that just slam the seat back. Sorry — that is just about as inconsiderate as it comes. The seat pitch is so tight on many airlines that there really is no room for that behavior. No matter where you move you are in someone else’s space.”

There’s some debate out there about whether heavier passengers should pay extra for two seats — on the grounds that one’s girth involves personal choices — but it’s pretty hard to make the same argument about height. It’s also true that big and tall men are at greater risk of blood clots, which can be a problem on some long-haul flights. Just something to think about as you decide to pitch the seat back for your convenience.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

Some of the more disappointing responses to the debate came from friends of mine who spoke simply of rights. For example:

  • Yeah. You have every right to recline. In some circumstances it may be chivalrous not to, but reclining is your right.
  • I take a different view that when you pay for the ticket, you pay for a seat that can recline, and you can exercise your right to do it. And if someone exercises their right, it’s not rude, it’s them doing what they need to be comfortable.

Come on. The most impoverished airplane-seat-reclining debate is the one where we simply talk about our “rights.” Let’s stipulate that everyone has the right to recline their seat as much as they want. Great. Now, let’s discuss whether they should. A civil society is one that doesn’t just focus on rights but also on responsibilities.

I mean, I wouldn’t want governments or airlines dictating what food you can bring on a plane, how loud you can snore, what clothing you can wear, what musk you should be wearing, what conversation you should be having or how you should discipline your children. But just because there is freedom in these choices doesn’t mean that everything you wear or eat or say is appropriate. You shouldn’t be required by law to shower before getting on the airplane and yet you should shower before sitting right next to other people. You see the distinction, right?

Yes, you have the right to recline your seat. You also are blessed to live in a society with other human beings. Maybe focus less on demanding your right to thrust your seat back and focus a little more on whether that’s the best way to treat your neighbor.

New Rules

So, all that out of the way, I’ll offer a few guidelines for discussion. It’s better to have a shared understanding of what’s appropriate or inappropriate behavior than to let a climate of confusion, unspoken rage and passive aggression fester. I offer these as a starting point and encourage any and all revisions:

1) Seriously Consider Not Reclining
Understand that any marginal increase in your flight experience comes directly at the expense of the person behind you.

2) If You Feel Compelled To Recline, Be Respectful
a) Your decision to recline should be informed by the situation behind you. Empty seat? Recline away. Harried mother with a child in her lap? I’m going to go with no. Business traveler attempting to work on a laptop? Maybe not. In the front of the plane with plenty of room behind seats? Sure.
b) Be polite and ask the traveler behind you if they mind.
c) Recline slowly. The one frequent flier I know who supports reclining gets a pass because he’s usually flying internationally (more on that in a bit). His advice is to be controlled in the process of reclining. He writes, “You do not recline quickly or all at once. You recline slowly and incrementally, giving the person behind you time to make the necessary adjustments. You must be sure you are not making contact with a computer or other objects. You raise your seat during meals.”
d) Under no circumstances should you lean forward for an extended period of time while your seat is reclining, as some crazy person did on my last flight just across the aisle.

3) Sometimes It’s Totally Fine To Recline
a) Are you on an 11-hour flight? You can recline. You’re expected to sleep.
b) Is it after 10:30 PM and your flight will be arriving after midnight? Recline away.
c) Is everyone on the plane reclining for some reason? You’re in a reclining free-for-all. Recline all you want. And if everyone is reclining and sleeping in a darkened cabin, don’t be the jerk who is loudly carrying on a ridiculous conversation as folks are attempting to slumber.

4) Balance Health Issues
You say your back hurts if you don’t recline? Understandable. But remember that you might kill the tall person behind you as you crash into their knees and give them a blood clot. Or send the claustrophobic woman into a panic attack. Just kidding. But do keep in mind the trade-offs.

5) Know The Limits
Under no circumstances should you keep pushing back on a reclined seat or “bounce” the seat after you’ve reclined it. As one of my friends said, “I don’t mind the reclining person in front of me too much, but what I really hate is the person who reclines to the max, then continues to push back on the seat as if it could go further. That’s when I (gently) push back on the seat and say, ‘That’s as far as it goes.'” How civilized! I’d be tempted to thrust my knee into the seat for the duration of the flight.

So how about it. Would these guidelines help? Are they all wet? Am I missing something? Let’s get this settled for once and for all.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.

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