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Travel etiquette: The final word on the right to recline

Feb. 17, 2020
9 min read
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Editor's note: This is a recurring post, recently updated with new information.

Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a TPG column that explores the fragile social contracts and the delicate do’s and don’ts of travel. Have an opinion or suggestion for a future subject? Sound off in the comments below.

You're stuck in economy class, where tighter and tighter seating arrangements can make a three-hour flight feel 180 minutes too long.

Heard tell of passengers behaving badly of late? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blames it on those close quarters in cattle class, saying the proximity has turned the friendly skies fiendish over everything from armrests to window shades.

But there may be no greater source of contention than when it's acceptable to recline your economy seat. And according to an advice column on USA Today, the answer is never.

Reclining your seat is "irritating, inconvenient [and] self-indulgent" London-based organizational consultant Simon Sapper told USA Today.

And with inches rapidly disappearing between one seat to the next, reporter Christopher Elliott argues there's simply no space left to recline. "Because we're officially out of space," Elliott writes, travelers should immediately stop reclining — and airlines should intervene by removing the function entirely.

So, is this the final word on the coveted right to recline? Hardly.

A two-sided story

TPG Lounge readers frequently chime in on the debate as well, and have shared their best and worst stories and tips.

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"If your seat is physically capable of reclining, it is solely your decision whether to recline it," said David M.

And more bluntly, Sacha K. said, "My seat, my rights. Just like the person in front of me."

Travelers rarely hold neutral views on this question, and Elliott isn't the first professional opinion-giver to denounce the act of reclining.

"Do not recline your seat. Ever." opined Gawker's Hamilton Nolan in 2014. "Congress should pass a law that all economy class airplane seats must be welded into a permanently upright position. There are no exceptions.”

Yet cramped quarters with no opportunity for movement, especially on long-haul flights, can pose serious, even potentially deadly health risks (like that time TPG's former director of social media developed a blood clot on a six-hour flight home to New York from Iceland). So, what's a traveler to do?

Finally, TPG is solving one of the greatest debates in modern air travel. Here's everything you need to know before you push that button and lean back.

What the experts say

"The question of the recline is like a zero-sum game," award-winning aircraft cabin designer James Lee told TPG. "The gain of one person is the pain of the person behind."

In 1985, a U.S. nonprofit called the Consumers Union began monitoring changes in seat pitch — the distance from the back of your seat to the back of the seat in front — across the four largest U.S. airlines: American, Delta, United and Southwest. Three decades ago, Southwest led the pack by offering as much as 35 inches of seat pitch between every row. United offered one extra inch for a total of 36 inches in the most generous section of its economy cabin.

Today, not a single one of those airlines offers economy seating with more than 33 inches of pitch, according to The Telegraph. In fact, The Big Three carriers all offer around 31 inches of seat pitch. Budget airline Frontier goes as low as 28 inches, while beloved airline JetBlue offers a generous 32 to 33 inches on its A320s and 33 inches on its A321s.

There's no doubt about it: The economy cabin no longer reflects any hint of the Golden Era of Travel, and barely-reclining seats are one of the scant vestiges of comfort we've been granted.

Despite the vehement civilian complaints, all flight attendants agree that seat reclining is not just the privilege, but the right of every passenger whose seat leans back. In fact, on some airline routes, passengers specifically have to pay for the ability to do so.

Steward Serving Passengers Aboard Douglas DC-3 Aircraft (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
Steward Serving Passengers Aboard Douglas DC-3 Aircraft (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

"In the same way that you have the right to recline your seat, the passenger in front of you does as well," says Carrie A. Trey, TPG's resident expert flight attendant. "You paid for it — it's yours."

The right to recline is yours, even on shorter-haul flights with a duration of under three hours and during meal services, although a little tip to the wise: It's just easier to eat with your seat up for that extra bit of spinal support.

And on a flight from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Houston (IAH), my flight attendant Darla reiterated the sentiment: “Ultimately, you paid for the seat — you can do what you want.”

Thus, any space available to you as an economy-class traveler is yours to claim, as long as you comply with federal regulations that dictate keeping seats upright for takeoff and landing, in order to facilitate quicker passenger egress in the event of an emergency landing. This is nonnegotiable: Even a slightly-reclined seat can mean the difference between life and death for you and other passengers during a crisis.

Mind the knees, please

In August 2014, two passengers on United Flight 1462 heading from Newark (EWR) to Denver (DEN) made headlines for scuffling over a $21.95 contraption called the Knee Defender, touted to help passengers "stop reclining seats on airplanes so your knees won't have to," which one traveler self-installed on the seat in front of his in order to prevent his fellow passenger from reclining her seat. The situation quickly escalated into a fracas involving flight attendants, water thrown in someone's face, and a hasty unscheduled stop in Chicago to toss both passengers off the flight.

The debacle resulted in both passengers facing potential FAA fines. More importantly, United Airlines came out and publicly stated that passengers are not allowed to prevent fellow travelers from reclining their seats if they so choose.

"Sitting wreaks havoc on the human body," Greg Cheyne, a Florida-based chiropractor who has treated many road warriors over the course of his career, told TPG. "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."

It's a situation that's only exacerbated if a traveler cannot take advantage of the slight degree change afforded by reclining his or her seat.

Flying in economy can be deeply uncomfortable for anyone — but it borders on unbearable for passengers with long legs, Cheyne said, because in extreme situations, the seat back may physically end up crushing their knees into an immovable position.

The idiom "cutting someone off at the knees" carries dual meanings of not only preventing someone from doing what they want, but also humiliating them in the process of so doing. It's a literally and figuratively apt way of describing the seat-recline debacle.

Other considerations

While all travelers have the right to recline their seats — and should feel free to do so even if the passengers behind disagrees — in-flight etiquette strongly calls for passengers to take a courtesy peek behind them before doing so, in order to watch out for potential knees that might get smashed in the process.

But there are a few other things travelers should be watching out for, too, including travelers with lap children, or an unfolded tray table holding a hot cup of coffee or an open laptop.

And while there are no set rules, many travelers think it's polite to return your seat to the upright position during meal service.

The future of recline

From a design standpoint, Lee proposed resolving the issue by creating no-recline seats fixed in more ergonomically-designed positions that do not compromise traveler safety or comfort. Fixed seats would also eliminate the associated risk of accidentally jostling the seat tray and spilling a beverage into someone's lap, or of damaging someone's open laptop when reclining back.

A handful of airlines — Cathay Pacific, ANA, Air Asia and Middle East Airlines introduced "fixed-shell" economy class seats, around a decade ago, Lee said, where the seats recline by sliding forward within their own shells. "Personally, I feel this is the best situation for seat recline," Lee said — at least in the social sense, because everyone is in control of their own space.

However, the seat designs were not popular enough with passengers because the reclining shells came at the cost of reduced legroom while on the operational side, airlines noticed increased fuel costs from the heavier plane seats.

The bottom line

USA Today's Elliott pointed out that just because you can do something on a plane, doesn't mean you should. Certainly we agree that abusing the call button and scarfing down a bag of hard-boiled eggs would land you on Passenger Shaming's naughty list.

But until travelers and airlines collectively agree to sacrifice more legroom (and, possibly, pay higher ticket prices) in exchange for seats that truly solve the issue — a fixed-shell design that allows recline without interfering with the person sitting behind — we must work with what little space we have.

Save for takeoff and landing, when the seat absolutely must be secured in the upright position, your seat is yours to recline as you please — but do so with courtesy and care for the equally hapless traveler behind you.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman.