Once and For All: Stop Shaming People Who Recline Their Airplane Seats

reclining seat
Ted McGrath/Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Ted McGrath/Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The debate over whether or not it’s okay to ratchet your seat backwards in coach grows more savage by the day. Some 2.5 million people a day fly in the United States, and most of them are much closer to the person in front of them than they’d prefer. To have some faceless haircut recline your traytable into your very thighmeat has become a genuine flashpoint in travel.

On the one side sit passengers attempting the undeniably innocuous act of adjusting their seat a few inches into a more comfortable angle. On the other are passengers rage-tweeting -- knees braced against the seat in front of them as if straining to hold the door shut against a tornado or zombie uprising -- that reclining is an aggressive breach in the contract of airplane etiquette. Of civil society.

The recline button represents the most embattled, lawless, and antagonistic 5 inches of personal space in modern travel. For people on the fence, stumbling upon this battleground could understandably leave them feeling like that kid from the “Mom, can you pick me up? I’m scared” meme. Seat-reclining is either a non-issue (and your right as a paying customer) or seat-reclining is what ordinary people did during the Holocaust. It is time to settle this.

To recline or not to recline?

Personally I think planes are cool, and I think we complain about them disproportionately to what their actual issues are. Racial profiling by the TSA? Be mad. Less legroom than you’d ideally want for a few hours? I dunno, man, I feel like most of you could just let that one go. Yet it would appear that none of you jackals have any intention of ever approaching this with any degree of chill:

The default, of course, is locked and upright. During takeoff and landing seats are more stable that way, and in case of an emergency (most likely to occur at takeoff or landing) flight attendants have a limited amount of time to evacuate an airplane, wherein no one needs to be clambering around your recliner. This is also why you can’t have a baby carrier in the middle or aisle seat, only the window.

If it feels like airlines are conducting an elaborate prank in which they make your seat smaller and smaller every time you fly while you attempt to cross your legs and question your sanity, you’re not entirely wrong. Airlines been contracting the pitch between seats in a bid to fit the most passengers onboard, and economy-class seats allow for about 2 fewer inches of legroom than they did back in the day -- not a huge change out of context, but a significant one when considering the actual size of human bodies, which keep elongating and expanding. Consider how your pants would fit with 2 inches shrunk from the inseam.

“In 21 years, I have never had anybody on a flight get into an argument over it.”

Stories about passengers Battle Royale-ing over a reclined seat have helped portray the seat-reclining button as a flashpoint for literal, physical anarchy. But if you bypass angry passenger anecdotes and come at it from the perspective of people who work in the airline industry, it’s nice to remember that we’re not nearly as antagonistic in person as we are online.

“In 21 years, I have never had anybody on a flight get into an argument over it,” says American Airlines flight attendant Jill McIlvaine. “Maybe every once in a while someone will get a little passive-aggressive, but that’s pretty much it.”

A (highly unscientific) poll I’ve conducted among the flight attendants across three airlines I’ve encountered traveling reached the same conclusion. No one had witnessed any brawls, or even any verbal spats, or even really tension of any kind. McIlvaine pauses our phone call to survey the crash-pad full of flight attendants she’s bunking with for a few hours before her next flight; nada from them either.

“People are mostly well-behaved. I don’t think it’s actually that big of a deal.”

But is it rude to recline my seat?

It’s not like I jumped out of bed this morning with the powerful urge to ruin my friendships and mentions in one take, but no, it is not rude. The seat-reclining function is an option that comes literally built-in to the seat you purchased. Sure, you might have drawn the short straw in the form of the rear-most dinky seat that doesn’t recline. But sitting in the back non-reclining row falls squarely in the suck-it-up category.

Another argument people make against reclining is that they need to get work done, and a reclined seat prevents them from being able to use their computer at a comfortable angle. Look, there’s always going to be friction -- not even the literal kind -- when people are crammed together in a public space. It’s temporary, and we all have to just try to deal with it as best we can. I’m not alone in this; it’s just that the Against Reclining camp is the one that complains the most.

“What’s happening is that air travel is becoming more and more, ‘how do we get more people into the plane so we can get more money,’ McIlvaine says. “We refer to coach travel as, ‘the Greyhound in the sky.’ We don’t serve hot meals anymore. Getting through the aisles is challenging because people are just hanging out. So there isn’t a lot of room for the passenger in the seat, so that does make it increasingly harder. But people do it by the thousands, all day long, and they just deal with it.”

If it helps to think of yourself as a martyr, declining to recline out of a sense of compassion and human decency, by all means go off. If you’re really concerned with making everyone’s flying experience more pleasant, making a minor inconvenience into a lightning rod for ranting online just adds more stress.

But there are exceptions, right? What about tall people?

Exceptions to this would be when the person behind you is much larger than average. For instance, some of you regular readers might recall that I spent a significant amount of time backpacking and that I did so with a friend -- this meant a lot of flights together on a lot of different airlines and types of plane. At 5’9.5”, I have never once minded the person in front of me reclining. At 6’3”, my friend’s kneecaps often literally prevent the person in front of him from doing the same. And it’s not as if tall people can just recline their own seats to reclaim whatever percentage of comfort they might have just lost -- reclining changes the angle of your upper body, not the length of your legs. If the person behind you is tall, it’s still alright to try to recline if that’s what’s most important to you as a consumer. But the considerate thing is to stay upright, with the understanding that whatever small degree of comfort you carve out for yourself when you recline is nowhere near the degree of discomfort you inflict on the person behind you.

The recline button represents the most lawless 5 inches of personal space in modern travel.

And this doesn’t just go for tall folks -- I’ll have none of you out there making flights more difficult for overweight folks, who already frequently face horrific rudeness from their fellow passengers, not to mention the anxiety associated with flying while fat, whether they’re treated politely or not. A larger person might not be able to cross their legs or shift to one side or otherwise make the newly reclined landscape more livable. It’s also worth keeping in mind that some smaller-than-average people need to recline because the default position hurts their backs. In short, when you take your seat make sure to look at who’s sitting behind you and make sure you won’t be making them miserable just so you can be marginally more comfortable.

If you can’t visually diagnose a back problem with a three-second glance behind you, consider the line, “Pardon me, I wonder if you’d mind my reclining the seat?” If that feels like a huge ask of a stranger, well, maybe just sit straight up till you touch down again at LAX.

Aren’t there like … devices you can buy to stop the seat in front of you from going back?

Oh, you mean Knee Defenders, those infomercial-y plastic hooks that lock into your tray table and jam the reclining mechanism of the seat to which that tray table is attached. This is such an aggressive move! There are so many better things you can be doing while you wait for takeoff than start fights! Knee Defender stans enjoy legroom, sure, but what they really enjoy is drama. At any rate, since their brief trip through the news cycle around 2014, the Knee Defenders have largely faded from the to-recline-or-not-recline discourse. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t do blanket bans on such devices, preferring to leave it up to the individual airlines, kind of like the federal government leaving, say, weed legalization to the states; that said, all major US airlines have banned these. Have the Knee Defenders caused fights on flights? Duh. But again, it’s not the Wild West out there, not even at their peak.

“Yeah, I have heard about those, but I’ve never seen one,” says McIlvaine. She polls the room once more. “No, nobody. If I ever did, I’d just say politely but firmly that that’s not an approved device, and say it’s acceptable to recline your own seat back, too.”

Why don’t airplane manufacturers just … stop making seats that recline?

Some already do! Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air are among those who’ll just leave ya locked upright all flight. Is this a better world, the one you dreamt of?

Ugh, fine, just tell me what my best options are. Please, my legs are so sore

Just checking, but you know you can look up your plane schematics online before you select a seat, right?

“I think these days, the savvy traveler is learning what seats to try to get if they want more legroom,” McIlvaine says. “Everyone tries to battle for the window or the aisle -- anything but the middle. Yes, the exit rows are desirable, but it depends on the airplane. A lot of times [you should] try for the front seat by the bulkhead, where the tray tables come up through the arms and nobody’s in front of you. And now a lot of times the airplanes have the Economy Plus area, and that’s a little better.”

If you have no extenuating circumstances in the realm of back problems or physical size, I truly believe your best option is to recognize that we’re all uncomfortable and that we all will, in a couple of hours, be less uncomfortable, and that therefore maybe your Outrage firepower is best focused on other things. Like calling Congress.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.