A box in the sky is the last place I want conflict.
When you think about it, flying is magical. How marvelous it is to fall asleep in Mexico and wake up in Belize, Brazil, or the British Virgin Islands and have a whole new menu of adventures at your fingertips?
For me, flying holds an air of mystery and presents opportunities to disconnect and daydream. I excitedly clamor to snag window seats for those vistas of shapeshifting puffy clouds and colorful landscapes gliding past. My first plane ride was as a toddler when my family relocated to Namibia, and I have had a love affair with air travel ever since.
For many, flying is solely a means to an end, but there are so many elements of it I adore. I love the mega-watt smiles from the cabin crew when boarding and the anticipation of finding out who I will be seated next to or, even better, having no seatmates at all. I have fond memories of my favorite flights like my maiden voyage to Honolulu when I listened to Friendly Fires’ “Hawaiian Air“ non-stop or how all Copa Airlines planes remind me of the day I moved to Panama. My most beloved journeys in the sky often involve intrigue, wonder, and warm weather. One thing they do not include is someone interrupting my bliss by reclining their seat in front of me.
Seat reclining is a polarizing practice that I abstain from for various reasons. The first is principle. One of my guiding principles is that I do to others what I want to be done to myself. Since I live in fear of being placed behind a merciless recliner, I would hesitate to inflict the same suffering on a fellow passenger. A recliner bashing their seat into you is unneighborly and akin to someone pouring sand into your piña colada—you could still drink it, but the experience has been ruined. I am fully onboard with the 77% of air passengers who believe seat reclining is rude, according to a survey in 2022 by The Vacationer. Reclining your seat all the way back with no warning is self-indulgent at best and selfish at worst. In short, one person’s gain is someone else’s pain.
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Another reason that I decline to recline is simply because I don’t perceive a partially-leaning chair to be superior in comfort. Unless I can sprawl out completely horizontally, I see no benefit in this limbo-like existence between true and perceived comfort. As such, you won’t likely find me in this dentist chair-reminiscent position even when no passenger is behind me to be perturbed by my actions.
I also find this thorny issue to be so disruptive and a bonafide source of conflict. Someone reclining can be incendiary when you’re working, eating, or you have hot tea on our tray table that can spill all over the place. The news cycle is full of passengers vehemently defending their right to lean back and altercations due to broken laptops smashed by sudden and savage reclining.
INSIDER TIPDon’t tuck your laptop into the meal tray.
Since there is no firm agreement on who’s right and who’s wrong, or where my space ends and yours begins, staying upright seems like the safest way to keep the peace.
The Case Against Seat Reclining
A 2013 Skyscanner survey revealed that nine out of 10 flyers wanted seat reclining to be banned or restricted. A separate survey found that more than 60% of international cabin crew had witnessed mid-air altercations due to seat reclining. In an effort to temper the rage, some airlines have reduced seat reclining on certain aircraft or ordered planes with pre-reclined seats, which is good news for non-recliners.
“We are all already struggling for comfort and space as it is.”
Passengers who often find themselves in the cramped-up nosebleed seats at the back (which can’t recline) may have some strong opinions about having their already meager space invaded by someone in front of them. South Florida-based content creator Erin Cohen is one such traveler. A frequent flyer, she prefers not to pay more on top of already pricey plane tickets for extra comforts like early boarding and extra legroom. She regularly finds herself in the claustrophobia-inducing position of having someone encroaching on her precious real estate and immobilized with nowhere to go.
“I am highly opposed to people reclining their seats,” says Cohen. “If you paid for first class, do it, but in the main cabin, we are all already struggling for comfort and space as it is.”
Space is perhaps such a huge issue because there’s less of it. Over the last three decades, seat pitch—the space between plane seats—has reportedly shrunk from around 35 inches to as little as 28 inches. Seat width has also diminished, shriveling by a whopping four inches in some cases. In the 1990s, a Boeing 737 seated 126 to 149 passengers. Today, a Boeing 737 Max has a maximum of 230 seats. Lack of space is naturally less of an issue in business class or when you’re lucky enough to fly a generous carrier like Turkish Airlines, which repeatedly wins passenger satisfaction awards and has 18-inch width seats even in economy. However, tensions are rising as space dwindles, and in some instances, it’s leading to verbal arguments, soda attacks, all-out brawls, choking, and emergency landings.
I can’t blame people for wanting to make the best of a tight situation, but I believe that just because I paid for a seat that reclines, it doesn’t mean I should. I am also at liberty to walk barefoot, listen to music without earphones, or partake in similar unsavory in-plane behaviors that could offend or infuriate my fellow flyers, but I choose not to for the sake of etiquette, harmony, and of course, hygiene. Seat reclining is ultimately a moral issue, and one’s decision to do so depends on whether it is viewed as an insignificant inconvenience or a downright injustice. I’m in the latter camp.
To Recline or Not to Recline?
After a viral incident of a man repeatedly punching a reclined seat in front of him in 2020, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian weighed in on the debate telling CNBC’s Squawk Box that passengers can exercise their right to recline but with one caveat: “the proper thing to do is that if you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s okay first,” he advised.
Greg Kott, who is the CEO of App in the Air, a personal travel assistant for frequent flyers, similarly recommends courtesy and consideration for fellow passengers when exercising this right.
“We are all stuck at 35,000 feet in the skies together, so it’s best to maintain civility,” he says.
But how does one know when it is and isn’t okay to blast back? Kelly Kimple travels extensively and is the CEO of the women’s outdoor travel brand Adventures in Good Company. She notes that, particularly in economy, there are a few factors to consider, including the duration of your flight and what time of the day you’re traveling.
“If you are on a short, middle-of-the-day flight and you wouldn’t usually be sleeping at that time of day, you probably shouldn’t,” Kimple urges. “If you are on a long-haul flight and need to arrive rested, I believe reclining your seat should be okay.”
Whether or not to recline is one of the most contentious questions airplane citizens face. If you must, please look behind you first, recline slowly, and preferably only do it partially. Also, know that though it’s within your right to hit the recline button, someone out there not-so-secretly wishes you wouldn’t. We’re all just trying to get to our desired destinations, and fussing over a plane mechanism robs flying of its friendliness, comfort, and magic.