How to Recline Your Seat on a Plane Without Landing Yourself in a Viral Video
We've got expert advice on navigating one of the most common airplane etiquette dilemmas.
In yet another viral video of plane misbehavior, a woman was recently caught yelling at another passenger behind her, repeatedly screaming: "I am allowed to recline my seat back." The video, predictably, became fodder for endless discussion about whether or not it is OK to recline seats back on planes, and when. Add it to the list of hotly debated airplane behavior that comes up again and again alongside the proper way to load an airplane's overhead bin and to disembark the plane.
To recline or not to recline, what's the consensus? Most people in the comment sections of the various platforms where this recent video was posted say it's your right to recline—but that doesn’t answer the question of what to do when your seat reclining causes conflict with those around you. Talking with conflict resolution expert and University of Southern California professor Peter Kim, Thrillist asked what travelers should do if they ever find themselves in a situation like the one shown in the viral video.
What to do if someone is yelling at you on an airplane
"If I were in that situation, or sitting next to that person in that situation, I would recommend not trying to engage with that person directly. I would instead say: 'Let's have the flight attendant address this,'" Kim advises. You're unlikely to effectively reach a person who has already reached the point of screaming and yelling. "Once they hit that stage, once they've gone ballistic, it is virtually impossible to reason with someone like that," Kim continues.
Deferring to someone in a position of authority will allow the issue to be solved by someone who is in the position to make declarative statements to settle the disagreement. Kim says a mediator is a go-to in all sorts of conflict resolution.
"One of the most effective ways of resolving disputes is through mediation, and mediators have been proven to be effective in helping defuse these kinds of situations, and finding a way to resolve these kinds of conflicts, and especially if they're in a position of some authority on a plane," Kim explains.
Why people are getting so angry on airplanes
When asked why it seems increasingly common to see travelers explode with anger over minor inconveniences like seats reclining, babies crying, and other airplane irritants, Kim says that we can thank airlines for that. Airplane space has always been small—it's an enclosed space after all—but these days, the seats are even more cramped.
"The space we have in the economy is dramatically reduced from what it used to be when I was young," Kim says.
This cramped environment coupled with the stress people feel when they travel is like a cinder box. As we've previously heard from psychologists, anxiety and stress contribute to both shortened tempers and an increased likelihood of misbehavior on airplanes.
"All these things combined to heighten the level of stress people are experiencing on planes, and that is certainly making our reactions to all these incidental things that may not be that significant in the grand scheme of things, we are hypersensitive in that kind of situation," Kim similarly concludes.
How to recline your seat, without conflict
While the comment sections on videos of these incidents tend to conclude that you do have the right to recline your seat whenever you want, there are ways to go about it that will reduce the likelihood of having an incensed person screaming at you. Travel expert and founder of the travel blog Ally Travels, Ally Gibson, has traveled to 29 countries and has developed an etiquette around reclining seats on flights.
"I don't think it's rude to recline your seat on a long-haul flight, as long as you wait until after the meal service. I find it rude to recline on short flights (1-2 hours), unless it's an early morning or late evening flight," Gibson says. "But either way, I don't think you need to ask the person behind you for permission. Your seat comes with this feature for you to have the option to use it."
If you are feeling unsure about it, you can always look behind you and see how your fellow passenger is faring. If they have their tray out or have a laptop open, you can give them a heads-up, so they can re-adjust their setup.
How to avoid getting that angry on the plane
So, what if you are the person who has a seat reclined into your space? What happens when the creep of anger starts affecting you, and you’re up in the air? Professor Kim says to try and remember that most people are not behaving in a way to be purposefully antagonistic towards you. Kim cites a David Foster Wallace commencement speech, which encourages the audience to consider perspectives outside their own before reacting.
"There's more than one way of interpreting the situation and that takes work, it takes practice, to be able to see a situation in more than just the simple black-and-white way," Kim says. "There's an opportunity before you get upset to just say, I hate to do this, but the seat is making it really hard for me to use my laptop or the seat is right in front of my face right now."
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