Point-Counterpoint: To Recline or Not to Recline Your Airplane Seat


Few things fire up air travelers more than reclined airplane seats. The simple act of leaning one's chair back a couple of inches has led to fights, and then more fights, and then the invention of knee defenders -- which led to EVEN MORE FIGHTS. A more contentious travel issue you will not find.

Which is why we thought it'd be fun to have of two of our editors -- Dave Infante (who already hates tipping and is no stranger to offending the masses) and Matt Meltzer (who wouldn't even get on a plane for his best friend's wedding) -- fight to the death Thunderdome-style over whether or not people should lean their seats back during a flight. Or, 'cause they're actually friends, just use words to debate the pros and cons of throwin' that seat back.

Fat guy reclining seat


The thing about flying now is, we’re all in this together. It’s like you, me, and the crying baby in row 12 against the airlines, man. And you, sir, have just broken ranks. Because what you did was start a chain reaction that is going to systematically f*** the entire plane.

One person reclines; everybody loses

When you decided you had to have those extra three inches of space (and, really, how much further away do you need to be from that rerun of Big Bang Theory?), you leaned directly into my kneecaps, putting me in the airborne equivalent of that compactor Luke Skywalker got stuck in Star Wars, only without the garbage. Or maybe with the garbage, if you’re flying Spirit.
My options now? Proceed to have my femur compressed by the back of your seat or recline as well, and thus cause the same problem for the dude behind me.  And while there’s the occasional good samaritan onboard who’ll take one for the team and keep his or her seat in the upright position, most people are gonna lean back too.

You have now screwed everyone on this plane. Got it. You've caused a chain reaction of discomfort that ends with the poor schmuck in the back row who didn’t know he was stuck between a bulkhead and a bathroom.

On a side note, if you have an emergency exit seat and still recline, you’re the airplane equivalent of Kenneth Lay. Really, THAT ought to be a federal crime right up there with tampering with smoke detectors.


You started this fight. And now I’m going to finish it.

And don’t tell me I can lean back too. Leaning back doesn’t relieve the vice grips you’ve just created between your seat back and mine. Anyone over 5’8” is still suffering Kerrigan-esque kneecap trauma for the next four hours, and everyone limping off the plane has you to thank, a-hole.

Fortunately for me, I’m tall enough that I can cross my leg and brace the seat so you can’t move. Call it vigilante justice for the people. And when you start glancing back with that nervous, dirty look to see who’s keeping you upright, I’m gonna look so engrossed in this SkyMall you’d think it was hiding a copy of Penthouse. Which, of course, I read for the articles.


So the next time you think you might want to lean your seat back to get a little extra space, take a look at all the people behind you. If your extra few inches are worth inconveniencing all of them, go ahead you selfish prick. But when that baby in row 12 starts crying you better not complain; he probably just needs his diaper changed, and, like some other people on the plane, thinks his comfort is more important than everyone else's.

Cathay Pacific


I recline when so inclined. I’m not often so inclined, but it happens, and when it does, backwards my crappily-upholstered airplane armchair will tilt. Despite the fact that this is precisely what the seat was designed to do, this proclivity makes me the asshole to most people. I know it. I care about it. And I’m going to recline anyway. I’ve got good reasons for this, I think.

I have the right to be comfortable. Ok, kinda comfortable.

First of all, I don’t want to recline. At first glance, you’d assume I wouldn’t have to, because I’m 5’7”. This is a below-average height for an American male, but an exact match for the final form I’m Animorphing into: an oversized chalupa with male pattern baldness. You might think resembling a fried tostada makes air travel a leisurely comfort, but not so: even for me, it’s sorta-tight in economy.

Sure, it’s not as bad as it is for someone like Meltzer (who is, by the way, enormous). But it’s nowhere near what most first-worlders would deem “pleasant”, either. So if your boy Yung Chalupa is kneecap-deep in last month’s issue of Hemispheres halfway through a cross-country flight, and totally unable to fall asleep because his back’s at a 90-degree angle to my ass… it’s happening.


Reclining does not make me inhuman

Does it make me a tool? I mean, maybe. Sure, probably. But it’s no lamer than the people who carry on those weird tray-locking devices to block other passengers’ tilt-ability, or bro-hams like Meltzer who brute-force the same result.

Would I get into a fight about it at 30,000ft? Of course not. I’m a goddamned adult, which is why I deploy some basic etiquette to minimize retaliation when I recline. Is the person behind me using a laptop? Is their tray full of drinks? Are they even awake? Depending on the situation, I’ve gone so far as to strike up a conversation with the passenger on my six to give them a bit of warning.

Which brings me to my larger point: class warfare, cabin monetization, and something I like to call the legroom-industrial complex. (I actually just coined that term, but I think it’s great, so let’s roll with it, savvy?)


The airlines are the a**holes here, not me

The thing about air travel is, it sucks. I know this, you know this; collectively, we know this. If Sartre were alive to see the rise of commercial airlines, his famous quip on humanity would probably read something like, “Hell is other people in this goddamned economy cabin right now.”

This quotation is totally right. Not just because I fabricated it to support my next point (I did), but because the only people who suffer this agony are the suckers riding coach.

For years, airlines have been squeezing us proles in coach into smaller spaces to charge spectacular premiums on larger spaces. And guess what? Passengers routinely spend billions of dollars annually on those first class/business class/economy plus/whatever options just to make themselves comfortable. No one gives those bougie bastards any grief for fueling the legroom-industrial complex with their disposable income.

But when I push back a measly 10 degrees from true north to enjoy the tiny bit of freedom our airline overlords have granted us in steerage, I’m shouted down as a knee-knocking knave by my own coach-bound brethren. How does that make sense?


We must fight this skyward classism together, my fellow poors. They’ve got us snarling at each other over a moot point -- “to recline, or not to recline?” -- when we should really be focused on curbing the vicious tyranny of fee-based comfort. Until then, I’ll recline with discretion, and hope for the best.