There’s a Less Obnoxious Way to Recline Your Airplane Seat

As personal space on airplanes dwindles, the right to recline your seat is being called into question. Two AFAR editors hashed it out to find a solution to the issue.

There’s a Less Obnoxious Way to Recline Your Airplane Seat

Are you on Team Recline or Team Don’t Recline?

Photo by Shutterstock

Welcome to AFARguments, a series where editors go head to head about divisive travel issues.

When that video of two passengers coming to blows over a reclined airplane seat went viral recently, AFAR editors were in the middle of a company gathering at Mountain Shadows Resort in Arizona. Naturally, everyone had *thoughts* about the issue, especially fervent recliner and digital content director Laura Dannen Redman and upright advocate and senior digital editor Tim Chester. The pair thrashed it out over cocktails—with a few extra AFARians chiming in—and actually may have come to a consensus, and possibly even a solution . . .

Tim Chester: Can we at least agree that it’s wrong to recline your seat under any circumstances?

Laura Dannen Redman: Absolutely not. Laughs. Of all people, I would think you’d want to recline your seat because you’re 8 feet tall. Roughly. [Editor’s note: Tim is 6’2. Laura is terrible at math.]

TC: It doesn’t really help me. My legs go under the chair whether it’s reclined or not.

LDR: But being upright for that long? Stick-straight, upright? Those chairs aren’t even made for that. You’re not supposed to sit that way for that long—that’s why there’s a recline function.

TC: Well, the first thing I do is pull up the headrest, so it’s not on my shoulders. So I can actually sit in the seat. My theory is that the pleasure you get from reclining your seat is smaller than the pain you cause the person behind you. That’s the equation.

LDR: That’s very Kantian of you! For the greater good. I think it’s Kant at least. [Editor’s note: It’s utilitarianism. Laura needs to brush up on her philosophy.]

TC: Right, the overall happiness of the plane declines. There are many reasons why it annoys me. Your knees get squashed by the seat. It’s harder to see the screens once the chair has been reclined, so I have to slump down or recline myself. And then I just made the person behind unhappy.

LDR: I’m going to debunk all those reasons. What about the airlines phasing out seat-back screens?

TC: But they’re replacing them with brackets for iPhones.

LDR: Not really. I mean, you’re pulling your iPhone or laptop out of your bag and putting it in your lap.

TC: Even if I had a laptop on the tray table, I can’t do that when the seat is reclined.

LDR: What if everyone agreed to lean back? As the sole person sitting stick straight upright on however long a flight you’re taking, just lean back, too! Then everyone leans together and there’s bliss across the plane. But because we don’t have uniform acceptance of the fact that chairs are meant to recline, that’s our big problem.

TC: So if every chair reclined at a certain time, we’d just have to deal with it?

LDR: I consider the ding! at 10,000 feet the signal that I can recline my chair. And I will recline my chair if I’m on a two-hour flight and certainly on, like, a 10-hour flight. How do you sleep? You seriously sleep sitting up?

TC: Yeah, I can’t do that. But there are plenty of other issues—you can’t stand up straight to, say, go to the bathroom. You can’t get out. You’ve got to walk out in a question-mark shape to get out of the seat. And you can’t eat your lunch or your dinner.

LDR: But again, I feel like you’re bearing the burden of a seat situation that doesn’t work instead of forcing the airlines to make improvements to make us all more comfortable. Because you’re basically martyring yourself by not putting your chair back.

Bryan Kinkade, VP and publisher of AFAR: What about just a little back? So you’re not too upright.

TC: Yeah, I’ll do a little bit . . .

LDR: Awww, no no no no. You said you don’t recline at all!

TC: No, well, there are times when it’s acceptable.

LDR: Laughs.

TC: When the plane is totally dark and it’s an overnight flight, and everyone around you is asleep. So you’re not affecting anyone.

LDR: Let’s agree now that you’re the nicer person in this situation and I am the [bleep]. But do you look behind you to see if someone’s there? Do you gauge their height?

TC: I don’t gauge their height but I gauge if they’re sentient.

LDR: Sentient hahahahaha.

TC: If they’re awake. If they’re asleep, I’m not bothered.

LDR: So is this the real concern: When someone reclines into your space, and as a result of being a tall person dealing with that, you’re like, no one should recline.

TC: They’re reclining into my personal space whether I’m tall or not.

LDR: Sure, a little bit. But not enough that I would choose not to recline. I think, at the end of the day, the airlines need slightly bigger seats or they need to stop making recline and automatically tilt the seat back a little.

TC: Are you pro recline, Bryan?

BK: If no one’s behind me I’ll recline all the way, but I’ll almost always just inch it back . . .

TC: So, middle ground.

Jessie Beck, SEO specialist: I will say, I never slam it back all the way. I think that’s super rude. I always try to be as careful as possible. If it does hit the person really abruptly, I’ll say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. That was not intentional.”

LDR: Yeah, you can engage. I’ll turn around and make sure they’re not eating dinner on their little tray table. [Editor’s note: Never, ever recline your seat during meal service as you could send a drink flying into someone’s lap.]

JB: But also if they’re kicking my seat, I will absolutely recline all the way.

LDR: Oh, revenge! You see the seat recline as a defense mechanism.

BK: It’s so much of a domino effect too, because once somebody reclines on me, then I’m like, [bleep] it, I have to recline.

TC: And the overall happiness of the plane goes down.

LDR: No, the overall happiness of the plane goes up because their lumbar feels better. They get to sleep better. I mean, look, I will admit I’m 5’2 and I don’t have to deal with the same challenges you deal with on a plane, but I still think we need some flexibility to exert our independence in an already gnarly situation on domestic aircraft these days.

BK: You can choose your movie!

LDR: Laughs. Are you playing devil’s advocate? I thought you were on my side. . . . Am I being a dick? Honestly. I put my bag wherever I want. I recline whenever I want.

TC: I feel like when people travel generally they get more selfish. Like, we’re all going to the same place.

LDR: Yeah, the psychological effect of everyone being herded into this small, intense space. It’s created an every-man-for-himself situation.

TC: It always happens to me and no one else in my row. And it happens as soon as we start taking off and the flight attendants can’t tell them to put it back up.

LDR: Have you ever confronted someone about it? Have you ever said, hey, please . . .

TC: No, I’m too polite.

LDR: If you can’t tell by this article, Tim is British. Why can’t we just have more clear, honest, direct communication and say, hey, can you put that seat up a little? Just a little bit? I have really long legs. Thanks.

JB: If you ask me that, I would put my seat up a little and say sorry.

TC: Oh really?

JB: Yeah.

LDR: I would too.

BK: I would go back further.

All laugh.

TC: That’s the danger.

JB: Luck of the draw, I guess.

The Bottom Line

Never recline very quickly without looking to see who’s behind you. And let’s push airlines to do better, offering more comfort and personal space—whether or not the seat is reclined. As long as there’s a button on the armrest, there will be opposing feelings. Perhaps this issue, and so many others, could be solved if we just talked to our fellow passengers.

>> Next: Should Airplane Window Shades Be Kept Closed During a Flight?

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