When Can You Recline Your Airplane Seat? The Etiquette Debate That Packs a Punch

Olivia Hosken
Photo credit: Authenticated News - Getty Images

From Town & Country

To recline or not recline your airplane seat? The long simmering debate boiled over last week when a passenger posted a video of the man behind her repeatedly punching her seat in retaliation for reclining. Arguments raged on social media for days, and just when everyone was about to move on, Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian said on CNBC that "everyone should ask before reclining," igniting a new round of controversy. To resolve the issue once and for all, we called on a couple of experts on travel and etiquette for their thoughts:

To recline is a right, not a privilege (but don't be a jerk).

Klara Glowczewska, T&C Executive Travel Editor:"I travel in economy quite often, even long haul. And I recline. I do always wait until the meal service is finished—so the passenger behind me can eat and drink with his/her tray in a normal position. But then I push the button. Not reclining is unimaginable. One, because it’s almost impossible to sleep when rigidly upright—tolerable on a shorter flight, intolerable on anything over four hours. I fully expect the person in front of me to recline as well. They almost always do. While it’s not pleasant, being able to recline in turn takes the edge off it. And I’d certainly prefer to have someone reclining into my space than not being able to recline myself.

But that guy pounding on the seat of the reclining passenger in front of him? Totally unacceptable aggression, in my book. Sometimes, you draw the short straw in life, and just need to suck it up.

The question to ask is when is the right time to recline.

Myka Meier, the author of Modern Etiquette Made Easy: "Airline seats have an incline function so that passengers may use it to be more comfortable and therefore it’s perfectly fine to recline. The etiquette question is more when to recline and when not to. The one time I always advise bringing a seat back up is during dining, when seat back trays are being used and space is limited. Other seat reclining advice includes:

  • Recline very slowly so that the person behind you has time to adjust and reposition if needed.
  • Ensure the passenger behind you has finished their meal service before you recline.

If someone reclines onto you and it’s uncomfortable, you can either recline your seat to make up for the difference, or if you don’t have the ability to recline, try politely explaining to the person in front of you that although you would like to recline, you are not able to and you therefore wondered if, as a compromise, they would possibly mind reclining half way instead of fully to allow you space. I think it’s important to show that you are simply asking for a little compassion and not demanding something of someone. If they say no, then just know that airplane karma is a real thing!"

Photo credit: Fox Photos - Getty Images

The Takeaway:

Wait until tray tables are up, then—as politely as possible—go for it; and while it is ok to ask your neighbor to pull his or her seat up, hitting someone repeatedly is never ok. Of course, if it bothers you that much, then fly private and lounge wherever you please!

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