Reclining in Coach Etiquette


Slate published an article called the Recline and Fall of Western Civilization in its irregular A Fine Whine column where writers complain about things as varied as Thanksgiving, lunch breaks, and royal weddings.

The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.

Why? She’s a recliner.

For the five minutes after takeoff, every passenger on an airliner exists in a state of nature. Everyone is equally as uncomfortable as everyone else—well, at least everyone who doesn’t have the advantage of first class seating or the disadvantage of being over 6 feet tall. The passengers are blank slates, subjects of an experiment in morality which begins the moment the seat-belt light turns off.

Ding! Instantly the jerk in 11C reclines his seat all the way back. The guy in 12C, his book shoved into his face, reclines as well. 13C goes next. And soon the reclining has cascaded like rows of dominos to the back of the plane, where the poor bastards in the last row see their personal space reduced to about a cubic foot.

The writer cites examples of foul language and heated exchanges caused by seat-reclining incidents.

Once, on a flight from Chicago to Honolulu, a sweet old Hawaiian lady and her husband sat in front of me, and both reclined their seats at the very beginning of the eight-hour trip. “Excuse me,” I said. “That’s very uncomfortable. Is there any chance you could put your seat back up, at least partway?”

“No!” she snapped. “We paid for these goddamn seats, and we’ll recline them if we want to.” So then everyone was angry: I was angry because I had no room, and she was angry because I passive-aggressively kicked her seat once every 15 minutes—often enough to be annoying, but not often enough to definitely be on purpose.

(I find what she said to be unnecessarily rude. A simple, “Sorry, no” would have sufficed. And then what he did is horrible. Something about two wrongs…)

The writer links to a product–Knee Defender–that I hadn’t heard of which is designed to stop the seat in front from reclining.

And he finally concludes that the problem lies not with the passengers, but with the airlines who installed reclining seats. (And Miss Manners agrees.)

The problem isn’t with passengers, though the evidence demonstrates that many passengers are little better than sociopaths acting only for their own good. The problem is with the plane. In a closed system in which just one recliner out of 200 passengers can ruin it for dozens of people, it is too much to expect that everyone will act in the interest of the common good. People recline their seats because their seats recline. But why on earth do seats recline? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if seats simply didn’t?

Here’s why I completely disagree with his analysis. It all rests on the following assumption:

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; 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.

I think he’s dead wrong. Maybe it’s just my 6’4″ frame, but I am far more comfortable in economy when the person in front me and I both recline than when neither of us reclines.

And there are airlines that install seats that don’t recline. I think neither Ryan Air nor easyJet seats recline. I could be mistaken, but I know that certain low-cost carriers in Europe have non-reclining seats.

Are those airlines paragons of comfort? Most people would say that those airlines represent the exact opposite–the worst of modern flying. (Incidentally that is not a view I hold. I love flying budget carriers on short hops.)

I agree that there are some people who would prefer that no seats reclined to the current situation, but I don’t think it’s a majority opinion. Imagine if Southwest fitted the left side of its 737s with reclining seats and the right side without them. Which would fill up first? I think the left side.

He does talk about an interesting possible development in seats that may be coming:

Some European airlines have begun installing seats that are slightly tilted in their natural resting state, which, anecdotally at least, helps convince passengers they don’t need to tilt further.

If these seats stop people from wanting to recline, that may solve the problem. Until then, what’s the etiquette?

Seat Reclining Etiquette in Coach

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to fully recline my seat in economy throughout the trip. I will put it back upright if I stand up to go to the bathroom, though I imagine this is small comfort since I will be reclining again when I sit back down.

I think it’s inappropriate to ask someone not to recline. To me, it’s unwarranted social pressure.

I think it’s horrible to kick someone’s seat repeatedly as punishment for reclining.

I don’t claim these are majority opinions or that they are necessarily right except the last part about kicking.

What do you think? Do you have different rules based on the length of a flight? Would you stop reclining if someone asked you to?

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  1. I agree with you.
    I have no problem with people in front of me reclining. In any case, it’s not as if I needed the ENTIRE space the WHOLE flight. I do think it’s acceptable to ask people to move the seat back if you have trouble getting in / out of the seat though, for example to go to the bathroom, but that should be a temporary thing.

  2. As much as I love this website, and I’m even a client of your award booking service, you’re wrong and I look forward to kicking your seat on a flight sometime soon.

  3. At 6’5″ I usually face one of two situations. The first, I’m wedged in so tight that no matter how hard the person in front of me tries they can’t recline. The second, it’s not quite super tight and the person can recline but then I’m in pain for the rest of the flight. So yeah, I ask them not to and explain why. On the rare flight that they can recline without inducing pain I just live with it and wish I had flown United (1k).

    If someone asks me not to recline I won’t as a general rule.

    One time on an overseas flight in coach I reclined and the old lady behind me went beserk. Started beating on my seat wildly. Asian and didn’t speak English so I wasn’t clear what she was saying. I just decided it was best to comply with her wishes!

  4. I don’t think it’s rude. I recline, and I expect the person behind me to recline as a well. If you follow the logic of the non-recliners, we should have planeloads of people sitting upright. I think most people prefer to recline, and the non-recliners should join the majority of fliers.

    I’m a 5 foot 4 lady, and fit into a normal coach seat. I’m not comfortable, but I fit. The real issue is that airline seats are tiny, and don’t actually accommodate a large segment of the population comfortably. Blame the airlines, not the passengers.

  5. It’s my responsibility to respect the seat in front of me as much as possible. I expect the same from the passenger behind me. That doesn’t change if the seat in front of me reclines.

  6. I don’t recline my seat domestically but I am 100% for reclining if you want to. The seat is made that way and you are well within your right to recline if you choose to. This holier than thou attitude is just stupid, the sense of entitlement needs to go away.

    • You rail against the sense of entitlement of the person behind by arguing about an entitlement for the person in front? Odd…

      At 6’2 with long legs I have yet to be in a Delta cattle car that is big enough to let the person in front of me recline fully so I get where he is coming from. I wouldn’t kick them intentionally but I can understand some of the frustration. That said I don’t think the issue is with one side or the other but with the general attitude of people on planes. A little more civility and empathy could go a long way on all sides

  7. Nothing wrong with reclining your seat. Don’t slam it back, but try to do it slowly. And kicking a person’s seat is obviously unacceptable.
    I don’t know why people have to get so mad about little things like a reclining seat.
    Oh and it’s also unacceptable to ask someone to not recline their seat unless you have a really(!) good reason.

  8. Wow. This is Slate, right? No wonder. I love how the writer assumes that his personal preference is the inherently correct position on the subject. I think everyone has a right to recline their seat and I’ve even survived a flight where the seat in front of me reclined and *gasp* I didn’t recline my own! I agree that reclining the seat is more comfortable, especially for a long trip – sometimes, I just forget to do it on a shorter trip.

    And you are correct, I just flew EasyJet a few weeks ago – their seats do not recline. I also took a bus from Madrid to Segovia – the seats reclined, and they also had these neat little footrests that could be pulled down from the bottom of the seat in front of you. And free wi-fi. Frankly, the bus was more pleasant than EasyJet, but Easyjet was faster and cheaper than my other options of getting from Paris to Madrid.

  9. I’m a recliner, and generally a nice, polite guy. I don’t consider reclining to be rude at all. I’m also 6’1.

    This debate shouldn’t be ‘passenger vs passenger.’ Blame the airline for forcing the issue of a matter of 3 inches causing discomfort.

    I use my laptop on the plane, but if the guy in front of me reclines, I have to tilt my screen and make do. I can’t be angry with him because that’s his space. Seating on a plane is not like a chair where your entitled to the space all around you.

    The space under the seat in front of you is yours. Store your stuff, or stretch out. The few inches behind the headrest in front of you is not yours, it belongs to the passenger in front of you. They can use as they please.

    When you park you car in the street between two houses, do you go knock on both doors and ask if it’s ok to park there? No, it’s a public roadway.

    When you order a steak at a restaurant, should you ask permission from the vegan at the next table? No, it’s your dinner, your choice. they shouldn’t be bothered by your decision.

    They can’t recline all the way into your lap. There’s a set limit of a few inches.

    I think the ‘who owns the armrests’ debate has more merit than reclining.

  10. I guess I’m in the minority here. I’m also 6’1″ and it pisses me off to no end that people want to recline to the max in front of me when the seat is obviously hitting my knees. Then there are the jerks that, even when met with resistance from my knees, keep jerking the seat as far back as possible. Golden rule: I don’t recline in consideration of others and expect the same of them. Too bad be live in a world full of inconsiderate a-holes.

    Car parking, steak at restaurant == you don’t understand what an analogy is. You are not forcing a vegan to eat your steak, and you very much need to get permission if you are parking in a reserved spot.

    Reclining your seat all the way is, in my opinion, a douche move. And I’m usually too polite to give repeated kicks but maybe I should start doing so as well. The knee defenders seem to be the best idea ever. Person if front of you may disagree but if airlines haven’t banned them.

  11. It’s most important, IMO, to recline slowly if you’re going to recline. It’s the most annoying (and potentially damaging to a laptop) when the seatback falls on your lap like a ton of bricks.

  12. I don’t recline in deference to the person behind me, unless it’s an overnight flight where the assumption should be that everyone will be trying to get some sleep and those who don’t will need to adjust with the majority. On a daylight flight I think it’s rude to recline if the seat behind you is occupied with someone bigger than a small child.

  13. 6’4″ non-recliner here. I think that it’s perfectly fine for people to recline, but I never recline unless the person in front of me has reclined. I find sitting upright during the day more comfortable.

    Obviously if the flight is a redeye or long haul I’ll recline to sleep.

    I’ve also paid the person in front of me not to recline on a few occasions. I usually offer $20 and most people snap it right up. On two occasions people got offended that I had offered to pay and one of them refused the money and didn’t recline, even though she clearly wanted to. Sorry! My bad for attempting to solve externalities.

  14. I’m totally with you on this one, Scott. Why should a passenger be expected to forego one of the benefits of the seat he has rightfully reserved? And anyone who has ever flown before should realize that it’s a common practice to recline, and the expectation that your seatmate in front of you shouldn’t recline is unrealistic, and, frankly, selfish.
    Imagine we’re both the same elite tier level at a particular hotel chain and we both have a one-night stay on the same date at the same hotel. We’re both entitled to the last suite upgrade they have left but you arrive first and snag the suite before I do. I’m inconvenienced and not as comfortable as I would have been with the suite upgrade, but I’m not upset at you for utilizing what you are entitled to.
    It’s kinda the same with reclining your seat, although even if your seatmate does recline, you’re able to make yourself at least a bit better off by reclining yourself.

  15. If you recline, I will hate you 🙂 Sorry. You are invading my personal space. If I put my face 12 inches from yours, would you be uncomfortable? It is really the same thing to me.

  16. Here’s what I think is a solid compromise:

    Flights under 2 hours: No reclining

    Flights 5+ hours (int’l): It’s rude to recline during meal service–even if you’re not eating. But I take the view that everyone is better off reclined as well, so after meal service (if there is any) it’s fair game to recline. I cannot imagine flying in coach from New York to Hong Kong or Johannesburg without reclining the entire time…that sounds like torture.

  17. Some people first need to take a lesson in what an analogy is.

    I don’t see anyone here making a proper comparison to another situation. Somebody reclining their seat directly causes you pain. Physical pain : what part of this is difficult to comprehend?

  18. The tall people who expect others to forgo their own comfort so they themselves can sit in the smallest coach seat possible are incredibly selfish. It is no different than the extremely obese people who want to sit in two seats (one of which they didn’t pay for).

    If you happen to be too large for coach, sit in E+ or business, or put up with my seat against your knees. Or fly on airlines with a little more leg room and don’t put a bag under the seat in front of you; use it for your feet. Or like Ray, bribe the person in front not to recline. I like that, he is a problem solver.

  19. Nonrecliner – pain is one of those rare exceptions where you absolutely should inform the person in front of you. If you’ve done everything you can to make yourself comfortable (butt all the way against your own seat, not crossing your legs, etc), then that’s a very good reason.

  20. I am 6’3″ and do not recline out of respect of the person in front of me. On some flights my knees are already hitting the sit in front of me BEFORE they recline. Yet they always recline anyway and it has to be obvious to them that they are digging into my knees. I have never said anything but I do not have any qualms about bumping their seat with my knees when I get up. I also make a point to make sure they see that I am very tall when I stand up. My passive aggressiveness never works though – people are either not paying attention, or they don’t care. People may say “it’s only 3 inches” or whatever, but those 3 inches can really make my life miserable for the duration of the flight. I could probably resolve the issue by asking them politely, but I guess I prefer to avoid conflict, so I’ll silently stew and hate you the whole flight. A curse on your and yours!

  21. Sorry, in my post above I meant out of respect for the person in BACK of me. You probably figured that out though.

  22. On pain – if you’re not smart enough to learn how to move your knees to where they’re they’re not hitting the chair in front of you, then there’s really nothing more to say – and you probably won’t understand the analogies either.

    I’m 6’1 – 245lbs. Not a small guy at all. I can recline and position my legs where I’m not touching a reclined seat in front of me. The aisle seat helps, but can do this in a middle seat as well.,

    If you’re physically unable to deal with a reclined seat, then don’t fly coach, or don’t fly at all.

    • I’m 6’3” — my knees are definitely in the back of some seats. And you’re right, I’m able to find ways to prevent pain when someone reclines, like making an X with my legs by crossing my ankles.
      There certainly are ways to do it, and folks should expect that when they ride coach, people are going to recline. Or you can pay the extra $20 or whatever it is for choice seating to E+ or bulkhead or exit row. There are numerous options for tall folks for whom it may be painful. They can either accept and problem solve, or stick to being angry about it. Their choice.

      • I’m fairly smart but on about about 25% of coach flights I’m in pain even without someone reclining. There’s no adjustment possible to make room and no way to accommodate someone wishing to recline. Fortunately folks have understood (especially when my row mate confirms that there’s nothing I can do). I long ago accepted that flying coach hurts and try to accommodate those around me as best I can. Sadly E+ and First isn’t always available and not flying isn’t an option (at least if I want to keep my job and they won’t pay for first anyway).

        Empty seat next to me solves the problem since I can just sit at an angle and all is well. Full plane not so much.

  23. You’re talking about people that recline being rude and only thinking about themselves? What about those actively using their cell phones while the plane is getting ready for take-off? And I’m not even talking about reading or playing music – I’m talking about activity that emits radio waves. Yesterday I was sitting in the aisle seat and the guy across me just kept texting. I couldn’t stand this and directly asked whether whatever he’s doing is worth risking 150 lives and in response he told me he was fine and asked to care about myself. He didn’t even stop texting. I was extremely close to call an FA but figured we were close to take off and if I do they may divert the plane back to the gate. What do you guys think?

  24. Well, in my experience in recent years, far, far fewer folks recline these days than used to. It’s been my observation that the majority of pax these days in coach simply don’t recline — certainly not on 90 minute flights. A reclined seat in today’s cramped cabins makes it essentially impossible for a pax in the rear behind to get into the aisle.

    This is a conundrum, however, because consumers have voted with their wallets and told airlines that they want the cheapest seats possible, so this is the end result. Jammed planes and cramped conditions.

  25. @NonRecliner – and all the others who seem to think reclining is somehow rude. Sitting up unnaturally straight for many hours causes ME pain. Reclining is definitely relief. The person behind me can do the same and reclaim space. Sorry for the last row … seatguru tells people these are bad seats.

    If it causes you pain, perhaps you should consider first class, or economy plus. If I could partially recline and help you out, I’d consider it. But I certainly don’t want to be uncomfortable so you can be quite cozy.

    And I agree with the guy who mentioned the armrests. There’s where the assholes come out. Reclining is a safe, easy and expected luxury. Encroaching sideways is not.

  26. I’m 6’2″ and would rather have the person in front recline so that I can also recline my own seat. I pretty much always stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me anyway, so rarely ever are my knees an issue.

  27. I was just musing over this issue on a flight this weekend, and while I don’t tend to recline (not because of the people behind me, just because I choose not to), but what I can’t figure out is this:
    If the seats are so designed, why would one assume that it shouldn’t be done? Why else would they be designed in such a manner?

    • They were originally designed when travel was much different than it is now. Back then there were more space between rows. Now this isn’t the case. There are lots of things that you can use your logic on (e.g. there is a close elevator button but most would argue you shouldn’t use it when someone is walking towards the elevator) just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

  28. At 6’1″ with a 34″ inseam I pretty much have my knees just resting against the back of the seat in front of me in an upright position. The only way I can be comfortable is for me to recline part way back and then more fully stretch my feet under the seat. My normal flying position is about 30% of the seats capability to recline.

    I do have to inconvenience others a lot of the time on longer flights since I work nights and when I’m flying I’m sleeping with an eyemask and headphones for a few hours if it’s after 10 am.

    My personal thoughts are that it is rude to 100% recline for no reason especially during meal service. If your napping or feel bad…go ahead and do it. When you wake up or are busy bring the seat at least 50% of the way back.

  29. This is reasonably simple to solve 99% of the time. If you are really tall and can at all afford E+, C or F, spend the money and upgrade to be comfortable. If you can’t afford to upgrade, politely ask the person in front of you to not recline and explain why. Kicking the seat in front, pushing your knees against the seat to prevent the reclining, or just being angry about it the whole flight is incredibly juvenile.

    If you are asked not to recline by a polite person behind, try to accommodate this reasonable request. If you really want to recline, but are asked nicely not to, come up with some reasonable compromise.

    I don’t make it a habit to always ask before reclining, but I do avoid it during meal service. I also will give a little notice to the passenger behind me if I notice they have a laptop or something on their tray table. I can only do this easily if I’m in an aisle seat. If I happen to notice someone really tall behind me I generally don’t recline out of curtesy to them. Honestly, reclining in coach isn’t that much more comfortable to me. If it was a lot more comfortable, i probably wouldn’t avoid doing it unless specifically asked not to politely.

  30. If a tall anti-recliner travels with another adult in coach, sit front and back in two rows so the person in front is the one who doesn’t recline.

    It doesn’t necessarily help those who travel by themselves. They could aim for the exit row, bulkhead, or E+.

  31. I can’t stand recliners on flights under 4 hours. If you recline in E-, I will make you pay simple as that. You care about your comfort more than mine, I’ll make sure that you aren’t any more comfortable. You want more room, buy E+ or Business.

    Recliners are like gate lice to me.

  32. If the seat reclines, I’m reclining. It’s really that simple. I fly at a minimum once a week, and I have NEVER been asked not to recline my seat. What’s up with these passive-aggressive anti-recliners on here?

  33. Wow. What a topic! I have been flying an average of 25 times per year for about 22 years running. I read lots of travel mags, blogs, and message boards. This is my first exposure to this “issue” and I can tell you that prior to tonight I had NO IDEA whatsoever that anyone sitting behind me would ever have an opinion whatsoever about wether I reclined or did not recline. Yes, it is difficult to get up and move into the aisle to use the head, but beyond that, this is all news to me. I typically do not recline on shorter flights, but I am still quite surprised to be reading about such a high level of “passion” about reclining…

    I myself am not particularly tall (5’6″) so I would have no way to have known that at a certain height, the seat can actually cause pain when upright, and even more so as it reclines one, two, or three inches. I also had no idea that people who are tall might jam their knees up against the seat to prevent reclining rather than politely explaining the dilemma. I am pretty flabbergasted that some taller folks actually are angry and judging passengers as “rude” when they recline. Wow. You anti-recliners are making a HUGE assumption that the person in front of you is aware of your size, is aware that you will be angry and/or in true physical discomfort when they recline, and that they then heartlessly choose to recline anyway. More likely is that they are not tall, and have no idea that this is an issue at all. So you stew about these perceived wrongs flight after flight. Try rereading some of the solution-oriented posts listed here. And try to remember that most pax have no idea you are going to be physically affected by their seat doing what it is designed to do unless you tell them — nicely.