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To Recline, or Not to Recline? That Is the Question

March 09, 2018
6 min read
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Ahh, the age-old debate: Should economy passengers recline their seats? And by how much? We recently heard from a reader who had a difficult experience on a long-haul flight to Asia. An older couple seated behind her refused to let her recline her economy seat — they claimed they didn't have enough legroom, and they got extremely combative about it. The crew had to get involved.

We know this happens dozens of times per day, everywhere, if not more often. So, naturally, we asked our TPG Lounge readers to share their thoughts: Who has the "right of way" when reclining seats in economy, especially on long-haul flights? In similar situations, how would you react?


A large number of TPG readers are firmly in the "I paid for it, so it's my right to do what I need to be comfortable" camp:

It’s my seat. I’m reclining. – Darren L.

I'm 6'4; I'm reclining, so can you. – Drake A.

If your seat is physically capable of reclining, it is solely your decision whether to recline it. Same goes for the person behind you, and their seat. Saying that the person in front of you can't recline because it bothers you, would be like saying that the person behind you can't use their tray table, because it bothers you.

The person behind you doesn't have "more of a right" to comfort than you do, and vice versa. All that said, one should make an effort to be kind to the people around you, and if you do recline, do so slowly and gently so that you don't break laptops that are on tray tables. – David M.

My seat, my rights. Just like the person in front of me. – Sacha K.

On a long haul overnight flight passenger should have the right to recline. On a shorter flight that’s primarily during normal daytime hours they technically have the right but it’s rude and annoying. – Sosun B.

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It’s polite not to recline on a short haul but on a long haul fleet after food or snack time, reclining is a right. – Ivan B.

All about etiquette. Don't recline during meal service, go 50% before going all the way back, and be sensitive to reasonable or polite requests not to recline if people are especially tall (while gently reminding them that they can also recline if space is an issue). All about give and take, manners, and compromise. – Steven A.

I paid for a seat that reclines. If it’s too uncomfortable for you, pay for business class. – Robert A.

I don’t complain when the person in front of me reclines but I’m not particularly happy about it either lol. I do recline on long hauls though. I’m not sitting straight up for 16 hours lol. – Kyle B.

Stay Upright

A separate contingent of TPG Lounge members felt that the minimal payoff of a slight recline wasn't worth the anguish to their fellow passengers. Others felt that the duration of the trip called for different policies:

I never recline just because it’s only an inch or two, but don’t get mad if someone in front of me does. They have the same right to that I do. – Rachel H.

Don't recline. ... You're basically saying that your marginal comfort is more important than the person behind you. I'm 6'5" and I will only recline if the seat behind me is empty. ... I just don't see how moving the top of your seat back 2" significantly enhances your experience. – Sig C.

I never recline because I feel like people who recline are selfish. I hate having someone laying on my knees for a flight, but I have never said anything either. I just feel like you should be the change you want to see in the world. – Vincent D.

In certain instances, I won’t recline, especially if there is a lap child behind me on an intermediate length flight. – Andy G.

I don’t recline because I know how much I dislike when the person in front of me reclines. – Matthew S.

I usually don’t recline unless the person in front of me does, then I have to, because I’ve got to make up that space I just lost. – Jason C.

Am I odd in sitting upright an almost all flights? – Bob S.

Oh short haul I generally don’t recline or recline 1/4 of the way. On long haul I recline as much as needed and the passenger behind me should feel free to do the same. A request can certainly be placed asking someone not to recline, but it doesn’t have to be heeded by the other passenger. – Erin S.

3 hour rule - flight shorter than 3 hours? Do the person behind you a solid and don't recline. – Matt S.

Additional Opinions

The airlines make the spaces so small that we fight amongst ourselves. There's no reason why we should be mad at each other for the situation the airlines put us in. – Jason D.

This is why I only fly business class. – Victor B.

I was curious about how airline crew members are trained to handle seat-recline disputes. So on a recent long-haul flight from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Houston (IAH), I asked Darla, my friendly flight attendant, for some input. She chuckled and reiterated some of the best practices our readers mentioned above, such as being thoughtful about lowering the seat gently and making sure to bring the seat back upright during meal services. There's no formal "training" regarding how flight attendants handle disputes like the one our TPG reader experienced, she said. They just try to de-escalate seat-recline situations like they would any other type of passenger disagreement.

As for who has the right of way?

"Ultimately, you paid for the seat — you can do what you want."

Well, if Darla says so....

Featured image by Getty Images/CSA Images RF