Should You Recline Your Seat on a Plane?

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Sep 26, 2014
Girl on plane
Girl on plane / undrey/iStock

It's been a few weeks since several inflight fights over reclining have erupted in quick succession. While travelers have indignantly called out airlines for creating more and more miserable experiences, it' become clear from airlines' lack of response that airplane seats aren't getting any roomier any time soon. Which has us wondering: What "rights" does a ticket-holder have on an airplane when it comes to the space in front of and behind you? It doesn't seem as clear-cut as the fact that everyone should have the right to an armrest, the storage space in the bin above your seat, and a month-old copy of the inflight magazine ("should" being the operative word here).

Legroom, you could argue, is one of the biggest factors that determine your comfort level during the flight. Tom, weighing in on the anti-reclining side today, puts it this way: "Stretching on a long-haul gives you the same pleasurable feeling as the moment your tongue touches an ice cream cone on the hottest day of the year." Here, he and a pro-reclining editor hash it out:

Against Reclining -- Tom Burson:
There are only two instances where I won’t feel offended if you recline your seat. One is on red-eyes, and the other is if you’re physically incapable of fitting in your seat without it being reclined. That’s it. To preface, I’m a bit taller than average, and my legs are as tall as your typical eight-year-old. So when I jigsaw my way into a Delta seat, my knees are already pressed against your seatback. That’s about as comfortable as I’ll be the entire flight.

Now, let’s add a recliner to the mix. The moment you lean back, you’re forcibly trying to skin my knee caps -- no, I’m not using the water bottle trick. Why should you never recline your seat? First off, the space in front of you is yours, not the space also behind you. Secondly, there’s really no room to recline, and what’s the benefit of that added space? It’s a two-hour flight from NYC to Chicago, not an ideal naptime. Thirdly, it’s common courtesy, and I don’t want to make your flight hellish.

For Reclining -- Christine Wei:
I have the opposite problem that Tom does -- I'm much shorter than average. On many planes these days, a protruding headrest that's meant to provide support for most pushes my head forward very uncomfortably. Others may have back problems. Snug knees don't sound great, but it doesn't seem fair either for travelers on the other end to come away with neck or back strains instead. Especially when all we need often need is a few inches. Like one of our readers said in a recent comment, there's a happy medium. And let's be honest. Most U.S. carriers have a seat pitch of 34 inches (Spirit and Frontier not being among this pack, of course). If someone were to recline by three or four inches, they'd hardly be "in your face" as some have alleged.

That said, I absolutely do agree there are more polite ways of reclining and rather obnoxious ways of going about it. I always recline slowly, because I've had my head bonked mid-nap when sleeping on the tray table, and that's certainly no fun. Letting the person behind you know that you'd like to recline can go a long way. Final point: If you're going to recline, you should be a good sport about straightening up for a bit on occasion -- say, if the person behind you needs to get up.

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