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airplane plane seats woman hat passengers air travelDuring a recent United Airlines flight from Washington D.C. to Ghana, one passenger reclined his seat and was introduced to his rear-seat neighbor — with a slap to the head. A fight ensued.

According to The Washington Post, which broke the story, a flight attendant and a fellow passenger stepped in to stop the tussle. Then, upon learning that violence had broken out among his passengers, the pilot turned the plane around and headed back to Dulles International Airport.

Before the plane could land, the pilot had to circle for roughly 25 minutes. The Washington Post reports that while the plane, a Boeing 767, can take off with up to 16,700 gallons of fuel, it can’t land with it — hence the pilot had to lighten his load. As the aircraft flew in loops, two Air Force fighter jets arrived to escort the plane back to Dulles.

Once the plane landed, you’d think the police would have booked the belligerent duo. But get this: No one was charged with a crime. Not even the guy who started the fight (the one who throws the first punch is usually to blame, isn’t he?). Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told the Post that officers did not feel the incident warranted an arrest.

Ultimately, jet fuel was wasted, the Air Force was beckoned and people were inconvenienced because a couple of hot heads wanted to go to war over the loss of a few inches of seat space. Now here it comes: the Great Seat Back Debate. Clearly, mid-air violence is unacceptable, but what, exactly, is the appropriate course of action when cruising altitude is reached and the seat back button beckons? Is it rude to recline?

In The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room, Ed Hewitt offers a simple compromise: “I believe there is a time for upright seats, and there is a time for reclining fully. Everything in its season, I read somewhere.” Hewitt suggests that travelers glance to the rear before reclining. (Don’t do it if the passenger behind you is eating a meal or is extremely tall.) Furthermore, says Hewitt, “You don’t have to push your seat all the way back to get a snooze; only take what you need.”

John Deiner, Managing Editor of IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site Cruise Critic, argues for a more compassionate approach to seat back reclining: just don’t. Says Deiner, “When people put their seat back it bothers the heck out of me, so I always assume it does the same to the person behind me. I’m 6’1″, so putting the seat back doesn’t really improve my legroom that much at all anyhow. One way my wife and I deal with it: She gets the seat in front of me, and if someone puts the seat back in front of her, it’s not such a big deal because she’s shorter. I’ve tried talking to people who put their seat back expecting me to perform dental work on them, and sometimes we come to an agreement, sometimes they wave me off. When they do that, I aim the cold air from my seat vent at the top of their head.”

Better to aim cold air than a few punches at the guy pushing that seat in your face. My opinion? I recline whenever I feel like it. I paid for the seat. It’s my right to transition from a stiff upright position to a stiff mostly upright position if and when I so choose. It’s not like the seats recline all that much anyway. The difference between a reclined seat and an upright seat on an airplane is the difference between a quiet hum and a whisper. (Okay, I’ll admit it. As a petite person who barely scrapes 5’3″, I’m probably somewhat ignorant to the plight of the statuesque air traveler. Maybe I’ll reconsider my position on this. Maybe.)

Now it’s your turn. Whose side do you take?



– written by Caroline Costello

79 Responses to “The Great Seat Back Debate: Is It Rude to Recline?”

  1. John says:

    Any airline is at fault which crams the seats so close that any reclining seat hits the knees of the person in back. They’re miserly and cheap, trying to save a buck on backs (or knees) of their customer’s threshold of pain (forget comfort). Don’t fly airlines which brazenly treats their customers like cattle. If you do, you asked for it, and don’t complain!

  2. Mai says:

    LOL My hubbie and I do the same I’m 5″ he’s 6’6. We always try to reserve a emergency exit seat for him, but they usually do not assign them until flight time. That failing we check in early and always tell the agent we will split up and he always wears his fire department jacket and hat as it usually gets at least for him a glorious window aisle seat on check in! They have even moved him to first class quite a few times on long over seas flight and left me back in coach which I don’t mind as I am small and curl up with the little blanket and pillow I bring and sleep for most of the flight.

  3. Robert says:

    Using a little common sense can go a long way!
    I agree with you, there is a time when to and when not to recline your seat fully.
    Try to courteous of your fellow passengers!
    Good post, thanks.

  4. Laura Townsend says:

    I am 5’6\ and because of multiple knee surgeries and a rear ending car accident (someone dropped his cell)I have poor circulation in my legs and a damaged lumbar spine which causes chronic pain. I still try to be considerate of other travelers. I leave under my seat free so I can extend my legs and recline only a slight bit to easy pressure on my lumbar area (and never at meal times). If I’m taking a late night flight I will recline farther but only after checking with the person behind me as I know how I hate it when someone drops back when I’m trying to read or watch a DVD on my computer.

  5. Vicki Schell says:

    I hate it when the person in front of me reclines his/her seat, as it usually hits me in the knees; but I try to be understanding, realizing they are trying to get comfortable and perhaps sleep. But I find very irritating the person who reclines the seat as far back as it will go the moment take-off is over, and keeps it that way the entire flight: even while they are not in the seat, even while we are eating dinner [it is hard to eat form an airline tray when the seat in front of you nearly abuts your nose]. Once I had the tray down, folded my arms and rested my head, trying to sleep that way, and the gentleman in front turned around, shook me awake, and asked me to sit up, so he could recline his seat further. I generally do not recline my seat, and when on a long international flight I do recline it a bit to aid finding a sleeping position, I recline it the minimum amount. As others as stated, courtesy is the key — if this is a war, we should consider that we’re in it together, not gladiators fighting one another.

  6. Michelle says:

    I’m tall and leggy myself but I couldn’t care less if people reclined, it’s their right. I recline whenever I like. I cannot sleep on planes unless I’m reclined and even then it’s difficult to impossible. But I feel more relaxed when I do and my back doesn’t hurt as much. I may be missing out on some human gene here but this is one of those things that I can’t see what the problem is all about, completely baffles me why there are complaints. Seats don’t recline that much. It’s the children on planes and overly large people who don’t get two seats or are put in the middle seat that makes me angry.

  7. Jeff says:

    I always prefer to sleep on flights longer than a couple hours and the 3 or so inches my seat reclines is the difference between my head falling forward or laying back. Sore neck versus shut-eye. Given how little the seats actually move I never realized in was much of a bother. I certainly always felt the fellow in front of me was entitled to recline. If not, why let the seat adjust in the first place?

  8. JR says:

    at 6’2″ when that seat comes back on my knees and is almost touching my nose i get mad……..i never recline my seat if there is someone behind me no matter what there size……..i will try the ac to the head next time.

  9. George says:

    I think its the persons right in front of me to recline. Of course I hope they are considerate to look and not slam the seat down if Im leaning forward or eating. We all have to share the same space and the seat is made to try an be as comfortable as possible.

  10. Plaid says:

    A problem I have run into is the person (always a young female) kicking my seat repeatedly to annoy me if I recline. Solution: I tell them, “Please stop kicking my seat I have a bad stomach, and I’m trying to keep it down, and if you keep kicking my seat and it comes up I’ll put it in your lap, and you won’t have time to get out of the way!” It works !

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