Envision this scenario: You’re sitting on a plane, settling in for an hours-long redeye. You’re ready to lean back and pass out. You try to recline your seat, but — it won’t budge. What gives? You’re not sitting in or near an emergency exit row, so it should function normally. Your seat isn’t broken, either. You turn around and see the problem.
The passenger sitting directly behind is using a product that prevents your seat from reclining: a pair of plastic brackets, each the size of a miniature stapler, that lock tray table arms in place. That allows the person behind you to, say, eat a meal or use a laptop on the tray table worry-free, preventing your seat from reclining — and roadblocking your beauty sleep. What to you do?
The answer isn’t always pretty. In 2014, a United Airlines jet flying from Newark, New Jersey to Denver, Colorado was diverted due to a disturbance between two passengers. One passenger was using a Knee Defender, one of those very gadgets that stops the traveller in front from reclining their seat. The row resulted in the hopeful seat recliner throwing a drink in the man’s face, the plane diverting to Chicago, where the trouble-makers were promptly booted from the aircraft. (For what it's worth, Knee Defender sales skyrocketed after the incident made international headlines.)
I've seen grown men about to fist-fight over the ownership of a few inches of in-flight space.
But plenty of feuds flare up between passengers over reclined seats, with or without controversial plastic devices.
When is reclining your seat rude?
“Passengers get very heated over the recline-or-not-to-recline topic,” says Betty Thesky, flight attendant and host of the aviation-themed podcast Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase. “I've seen grown men about to fist-fight over the ownership of a few inches of in-flight space. This is when I, as the flight attendant, have to put on my uncomfortable kindergarten-cop hat and try to diffuse and cajole the arguing passengers.”
According to airline safety protocol, seatbacks need to be in the full, upright position during taxi, take-off and landing.
Why? Most airplane accidents occur during these three phases of flight. Therefore, seatbacks need to be upright to ensure that passengers are able to assume the "brace position" in the event of a mishap, and evacuate as smoothly as possible.
So, where do flight attendants stand on the reclining debate?
“I personally think the most polite, fair and equitable solution is to recline your seat half way. It's also polite to put your seat in the upright position during the meal service,” says Thesky.
Seatbacks need to be upright to ensure that passengers are able to assume the 'brace position' in the event of a mishap.
Classic courtesy is the most important factor when it comes to seat reclining: Pushing that button and slamming back is always going to be rude.
As a former flight attendant, the most successful “seat reclining” I’ve witnessed has been when the passenger wishing to recline turns around and addresses his or her planned move with the passenger sitting behind them and simply asking, “May I recline my seat?” A “yes” is usually given with a smile, and the reply is very rarely "no" — sometimes a “not yet”. I’ve heard passengers say, “I’m working on my computer and really need the space. Do you mind waiting about 15 minutes until I’m done?”
But there are other factors to keep in mind.
“Not all flights are the same,” says etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning. “Skip reclining during meal service, or if the flight is short and every passenger has their laptops out and they’re trying to work. However, on a long flight where everyone is sleeping, absolutely recline.”
If you’re not sure, Senning says look around and note what fellow passengers are doing. If everyone is reclining and looking like they want to relax, by all means, get comfortable.
Another thought: pay attention to who is sitting behind you.
If it’s a six-foot passenger with long legs, the respectful thing to do is to refrain from leaning back. On the other end of the spectrum, if your fellow passenger is an older toddler or preschooler, his or her legs may be long enough to hit your seatback only if you recline. That’s when the question “Is it worth it?” comes into play.
“On a lighter note — one time, just one time mind you — a kind-hearted passenger stopped me and asked how he could move his seat forward,” recalls Betty Thesky. “I asked, ‘Why would you want to move your seat forward?’ He answered ‘To give the people behind me more room.’ That man was one in a million!”
Beth Blair is a former flight attendant and a freelance writer. This story is part of a series on air travel etiquette.
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