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Airplane seat reclining etiquette: Is it OK to lean your seat back on a flight?

Nov. 23, 2022
7 min read
Inside of an airplane
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Whether to recline your seat on an airplane or not: It’s quite possibly the most controversial etiquette question passengers face. Passengers pay for their seats — and this year they’ve paid a lot amid inflation — and one of the things their seat does is recline.

However, leaning back in a seat cuts into another passenger's precious legroom, tightening the already cramped quarters that some 26,000 travelers bemoaned as part of a recent Federal Aviation Administration survey on airline seat size.

That intersection of legroom and the right to recline has come to a head in some intense confrontations at 30,000 feet.

Among the most costly was a 2011 fight that erupted just after a United Airlines flight with 144 passengers took off from Dulles International Airport (IAD) en route to Ghana, the Washington Post reported. A reclined seat sparked the altercation. The pilot decided to turn back, escorted by two fighter jets.

That was perhaps the most extreme end result to a case of a recliner, and it's something that will hopefully never occur on future flights.

But whether you’ve felt the need to lean your seat back or grumbled at the passenger in front of you who did, it raises the question: Who’s in the right?


How to recline a seat on an airplane

Let’s start with the most basic part of this discussion: how reclining on an aircraft works.

In most airline economy classes, you can recline a seat by pressing a button that is usually on either your left or right armrest.

Sometimes, the seat will lean back quite easily; other times, you may need to push a bit against it.

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The reason reclining a seat can be a controversial topic is because it cuts into tight spaces: Airline seat pitch — the measurement from a fixed point on one seat to the one in front of it — has shrunk from an average of 35 inches decades ago to an average 30 or 31 inches today. Some discount carriers even decreased the pitch to as little as 28 inches.

For that reason, unless you’re sitting in business class or some other premium seating accommodation, reclining is the subject of much disagreement among passengers.


Is it OK to recline your seat on an airplane?

We posed the question over the right to recline to frequent travelers in our TPG Lounge on Facebook, and within hours, hundreds had weighed in.

Some see reclining as a key function of the seat for which they pay good money.

“I do it as soon as we take off and keep it there until landing,” John Beeler said.

“It helps with my lower back problem,” Karen Skelly added. “I can’t NOT recline on a 4 or 5-hour flight if I’m expected to be able to walk off the plane.”

However, just as many travelers take a very different view.

“It’s selfish and ridiculous,” Christine Scott said. “People who recline their seats on airplanes are the same ones who hold up traffic while they take multiple attempts to back into a parking space.”

Others shared past anecdotes bordering on inflight horror stories sparked by recliners.


“The seat mechanism smashed into my kneecap,” Rhonda Fullerton Doak recalled from a past flight that landed her with a bone contusion.

“My hot coffee went all over me when the guy in front of me reclined his seat,” Doris Wiur shared.

“[I] ended up with my dinner and white wine all over my lap,” Shana Opdyke-Carroll said of an overnight flight to Europe.

“I’ve seen a woman get her MacBook screen crushed because the person in front just slammed his seat back,” Daphne Laure added.

The same happened to Nicole Collins.

“I had the edge of my laptop screen cracked by someone who reclined their seat without warning,” she said in a comment over seat size filed with the FAA. Collins was one of 1,950 commenters who mentioned the word “recline” in their testimony.

A physician, Collins acknowledged the accommodations on board aircraft can force some passengers into distinctly uncomfortable sitting positions.

Florida-based chiropractor Greg Cheyne addressed it, too, in an interview with TPG a couple of years ago.

“Sitting wreaks havoc on the body,” he said then. "When you're sitting in one position for such a long period of time, it creates huge strain on your muscles and joints to keep your body upright."

So, what’s the answer?


Airplane seat reclining etiquette

We know seats can recline, but many passengers wish passengers wouldn’t do it. It would seem the tactic comes down to a question of etiquette, for which we turned to Switzerland-based etiquette coach, author and podcaster Julia Esteve Boyd.

She started by acknowledging the point of contention that ultimately boils down to a "just because you can, doesn’t mean you should" phenomenon.

“It can be irritating or uncomfortable for the person seated behind,” Boyd said. “However, it is completely reasonable to recline your seat if you want to.”

She had a few specific pieces of advice that come back to common courtesy, though.

First, she says to be aware of what the person behind you is doing before you recline. If they’re eating or drinking, for instance? “Just wait a few moments until they’re finished,” she said. Or, if you’re ready to go to sleep right then — just be careful. “Don’t recline the seat too quickly,” Boyd said.

She also advises passengers to be wary of reclining on short flights. “If you don’t have to then try not to,” she said, while conversely noting it’s expected passengers will recline on longer trips. “But using some common sense and waiting until the food service has been completed would be considerate,” she added.

Some travelers shared tactics they’ll employ when traveling, both when reclining and when trying to dissuade the person in front of them from doing so.

“I’ll look behind first, then gently go back a little just to relieve my back,” Lisa Blossat Harrison explained.

“My husband is 6’6, so whenever a person in front of him reclines he kindly asks the person in front to raise their seat,” Keesha Booth added.


Bottom line

While there doesn’t seem to be an easy consensus on whether reclining a seat in coach is the right thing to do, there does seem to be fairly consistent agreement that it’s more acceptable on longer flights. There is also some agreement that just because you can recline doesn’t mean you always should. Additionally, courtesy and awareness on the part of the person reclining can go a long way toward avoiding situations that can make the tight quarters feel even more compact.

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Featured image by TTTUNA/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.