Decline to recline? No way.


Oh, the Internet has been positively a-tizzy in recent days after published a scathing attack against those of us who dare make use of our airplane seats’ recline buttons. This is a contentious issue, perhaps even more contentious than the topic of farting at 36,000 feet (the science of which even the most seasoned fartologists are only now starting to really understand). But whether you’re inclined to recline or you’re not, there are some basic principles that will help us all fly together in harmony.

For the record, I’m a staunch supporter of recliner rights. Airplane seats are built to recline. My fingers are built to push buttons. Combine those, and you better believe I’m going to recline my seat. Every single person has the same right, except those in front of exit rows (whose seats don’t recline for safety reasons) or the back row (whose seats sometimes don’t recline because there’s a wall there).

The argument that Slate author Dan Kois makes — that “the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same” — just doesn’t hold water. There’s no discomfort when you’ve reclined and the person in front of you does the same. You’ve just shifted your total space back by five degrees, not reduced it.

If you want to get all utilitarian about it, then perhaps the solution is that we should all recline our seats, or maybe all seats should be permanently fixed in their reclined position. This way, only the six or so people in the back row are out of luck, while the 200 or so others on the plane have equal space and the comfort of a reclined seat. Greatest good for the greatest amount of people.

This point of contention likely won’t be resolved any time soon. So in the meantime, here are a few etiquette tips for both recliners and non-recliners so we can at least avoid any in-air fist fights on the matter.

1. Don’t be a jerk about it
I like to think that if I slowly recline my seat in slight increments, maybe the person behind me won’t notice. It’s a quaint thought, and probably entirely untrue, but it’s better than slamming the seat back in single, swift movement the moment the seatbelt sign turns off. I’ve had my head smacked by an incoming seat as I leaned forward to get my carry-on out from under the seat. I fully respect my fellow passenger’s right to recline but I would have welcomed a slower approach.

2. Straighten up when you eat and when you get up
Get this — airlines used to do this thing where they’d bring you a tray with food on it. An in-flight meal they called it. Didn’t even have to pay for it. It’s rare these days, but you might still come across one, especially on long-haul international flights. If you do see this happening, and your seat is reclined, kindly return it to its upright position while everyone is eating. It helps you prevent dropping your food down your front, but more importantly, it means the person behind you doesn’t have to press their face into your seat to take a bite of their own meal.

If you’re getting up to use the loo or just stretch your legs, pop your seat back up while you’re up.

3. Be considerate
If the person behind you does protest your reclined seat, hear them out and don’t immediately spew out a stream of recliners’ rights slogans. If they’ve got really long legs or perhaps a back issue that prevents them from reclining their own seat, consider their plea and see if you can reach an agreement on the matter (i.e. you’ll recline your seat only a bit, and only when you’re trying to sleep). If you still think you’re entitled to all your recline space, explain that politely and agree to disagree.

1. Don’t use a Knee Defender
The Knee Defender is a plastic device that you place on the arms of your seatback tray to prevent the seat from reclining. The idea is that the person in front of you will think the recline function on their seat is busted and after a brief moment of panic, they’ll keep their seat upright for the duration of the flight.

The makers of the Knee Defender suggest you pass the person in front of you a passive-aggressive ‘Courtesy Card‘ that explains why they can’t (or shouldn’t) recline their seat. Don’t do this. If anything will inspire air rage, it’s passive aggression combined with the suggestion that you’re in the position to tell someone else what to do.



2. Be polite
Drop the passive aggressiveness, don’t use brute force to get your way, and do tap the passenger in front of you on the shoulder and explain to them your situation. Don’t get upset if you don’t get your way, either. You know the reality of airplanes these days, and you’re probably pretty familiar with the length of your legs, too. If you have a reasonable reason to expect the person in front of you to forgo their seat’s recline function, explain it to them. If you don’t have a reasonable reason (i.e. “I’m grumpy and I’ll kick your seat if you don’t”), don’t ask, and accept this as yet another inconvenient reality of air travel.

If the person in front of you follows step 3 from above and no one gets rude about it, chances are pretty good that you’ll meet somewhere in the middle. It helps if you can propose a solution, too. If the seat behind you is empty and you have no interest in reclining, ask if you can switch places, so they can recline into an empty seat. You just might have to repeat this process all the way to the front of the plane.

3. Don’t kick, roll your eyes or sigh heavily
Along the same lines, if the person in front of you does end up using their full recline space, you’re not going to make life easier on yourself if you respond with kicking, Kois’ go-to strategy. This is just a little something I learned when I was four years old, though, so perhaps it’s not the most up-to-date advice. Same goes for eye rolls and heavy sighs. If you’ve tried to reason and it didn’t work, understand that this flight likely won’t last a lifetime (it’ll just feel like it does). If nothing else, the experience will give you plenty of fodder in your fight for fixed-position seats in the future.

Back Row Sitters
Sorry, folks in the back row, you’re kind of out of luck no matter what. If it makes you feel any better, you’re probably also going to spend more time than anyone else on the plane standing in the aisle waiting for people to move. And you’re probably sitting next to the bathroom. You’re also going to be last to get a visit from the bar cart. The seatback reclined into your face is just one reason among many that this flight is going to suck for you. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, grin and bear it.

If you’re really upset by the prospect of being trapped in an un-reclining seat with a recliner in front of you, pay the extra fee to select your (front row) seat ahead of time, or check-in online as soon as you can to increase the odds of selecting a better seat. Check out the commentary about your airplane’s seating plan on SeatGuru to ensure you don’t get any surprises once you board.