To Recline, Or Not To Recline: That Is The Question

16 Feb

Take the poll! Take the poll! You know you want to. (It’s at the bottom.)

Okay, so maybe Shakespeare, or Bacon, or whoever else might have written those iambic pentametric verses filled with some of the best insults EVER, was never really concerned with the social acceptability of reclining in one’s airplane seat, but I’m taking the Baz Luhrmann approach to the classics. 

On my recent trip home from Argentina, I was on a flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, re-reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance for the ninety-seventh time, when I heard a man telling someone else to “please stop.” The voice was clear and carried over the din of the already unusually loud plane, so it caught my attention. He was an older gentleman, Argentinean, and was half turned around in his seat speaking to the person behind him. I watched him turn back around and then I watched as the younger man (probably in his late 30s), shoved the back of the other man’s seat several times.

Slightly shamefully, I must admit that my first thought was, “Please, please, PLEASE don’t let the instigator be American” (read: from the U.S.). To the Argentinean man’s credit, he managed to keep his cool a lot longer than most might have: The “please stop”/shove seat cycle went on for quite a bit. Of course, at some point the wheels had to come off. And they did. And let’s just say that I would not have been surprised had the plane been greeted by the police in Buenos Aires.

The altercation was stupid, but it was extra stupid because the flight wasn’t even full. Seriously?! The instigator had an empty seat next to him. In fact, he had the whole row. Had he at any time harnessed his inner jackwagon for even a moment, and just moved one seat over, which is what he ended up doing anyway after the dust settled, the entire conflict could have been avoided.

I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts in the last few years about whether or not one ought to recline when traveling by air. There was a time when I wouldn’t have even noticed if the person sitting in front of me reclined in his seat, but that was 20 years and a foot-and-a-half ago. As airlines have found ways to cram more and more people into less and less space, the reclining issue has become a bigger deal. This is especially true for anyone who happens to be on the taller side. And for those of you who are, say, 6’2” and taller, how do you even manage to fold yourselves up small enough to slip into a seat on a regional jet? You must be magic.

Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules. There are some people who believe that airplanes shouldn’t have reclining seats, which sounds great until you get on a redeye or any ultra long-haul nonstop flight. I mean, can you imagine sitting in an airplane seat uncomfortably upright for 15 hours? And if you happen to hit turbulence and can’t walk around, good grief! Not only might I want to gouge my eyes out, but hello, Deep Vein Thrombosis Express! Besides, a world with non-reclining seats just isn’t the paradigm at the moment. It would be like me asking you if I’m better off taking Hwy 101 or I-5 to San Francisco from Los Angeles and you responding that if California would just build a bullet train, it would solve my problem. You might be right, but I’m still going to slap you upside the head. Kind of like this:

It’s not a theoretical policy question. It’s a practical etiquette question. So, here’s my take if I’m the one potentially reclining: First off, I don’t do anything without looking behind me to see who is there. If there’s no one behind me, or I am on a redeye and there is an unspoken consensus to recline, great. If the person sitting behind me is an older child or a smaller adult, or we are on a large plane, I MIGHT recline just a smidge. I only need a little extra space to be able to sleep, work on my laptop, read, etc. in relative comfort. If, however, we are on a smaller aircraft or the person behind me already resembles my taller self stuffed into the front middle seat of my parents car with a GPS device digging into my shin just because I was the youngest, then I don’t do it. I prefer it when the person seated in front of me doesn’t recline too far back in his seat, so why would I do that to someone else? We’re all in this together.

But what if I’m the one seated behind the person reclining? The way I see it, there just isn’t much I can do. Moving is the best option when possible, but most of the flights I take are full. Provided that the seat isn’t so far back that it’s cutting off circulation to my lower legs, I generally let it slide. And if it’s really bothering me, I say something, politely. Nine times out of ten, that does the trick — that whole flies with honey not vinegar nonsense isn’t actually nonsense. Also, I’ve come to realize that most people are not aware enough of their surroundings to realize that their actions really do affect others. Pointing it out to them in a non-confrontational manner might be all they need to become aware at that moment and in the future.

There is nothing earth-shattering in my response. It seems like common sense, but the more I observe the way strangers interact with each other, the more I think that passive aggressiveness is most people’s default setting. Not so subtle grumbles to the person sitting next to you about how you wish you had more space just doesn’t get the job done. Anyone who has been on a plane in the last decade wishes she had more space, and it’s more than a little annoying to the person sitting next to you. Not to mention, fourteen kinds of awkward if you’re sitting next to a stranger (dude on the flight from San Antonio to San Francisco, leave me the heck out of it).

When all of those options fail, because they do from time to time, I remind myself not to be an instigator. Yes, a little shove to the back of the seat might get my point across, or it might get me arrested when the person in front of me turns out to be a ginormous a-hole with no impulse control who insults my mother (I’ve seen it happen to others). People on the plane may be cheering me on, but they’re not going to bail me out. And I wouldn’t fair as well as Spongebob in jail.


At the end of the day we should be grateful to live in a time when air travel is so accessible to so many. According to Dr. Lucy Budd of Loughboro University, in 1934 a trip from London to Singapore took eight days by air and included stops in Paris, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandra, Cairo, Gaza, Baghdad, Basra, Kuwait, Bahrain, Sharjah, Gwadar, Karachi, Jodhpur, Delhi, Cawnpore, Allahabad, Calcutta, Akgats, Rangoon, Bangkok, and Alor Star. (Seriously, I’m breaking out into a cold sweat just thinking of how utterly lost my luggage would get on a trip like that.) That eight-day air adventure cost about £180. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £10,909 in 2012, or $17,127. Five minutes ago, I plugged the details into Expedia and came up with a non-stop flight for $816. Yes, that is still expensive, but it isn’t $17,000 expensive.

In the United States, we have seen what some refer to as the “democratization” of air travel — I don’t think democratization is the right word (or concept), but the point is well taken: According to an article in The Atlantic, airline ticket prices have fallen approximately 50% (in inflation adjusted dollars) since the early 1980s. In 1980, the average fare for a domestic roundtrip ticket was about $620. In 2012 it was about $330 (again, in inflation adjusted dollars).

While ticket prices have fallen, the cost to airlines has increased significantly. The decrease in airfares is almost certainly unsustainable, but that does not change the fact that the world is wonderfully, if only temporarily, smaller as a result of the increased accessibility of air travel. No, not everyone can afford to hop on a flight, but at the same time air travel is no longer reserved solely for military personnel and the extremely wealthy. According to that same article in The Atlantic, in 1965, only 20% of Americans had ever flown on an airplane. Fast forward 35 years and in 2000, 50% of the country took at least one roundtrip flight per year. Fewer immigrant families have to save for years and still take out loans in order to travel home and see family. It has become easier to visit those out-of-state parents, go to that  favorite cousin’s wedding, or make one more trip to that ailing uncle. And more people can actually cross destinations off of their bucket lists. When I stop and think about it, it’s kind of amazing.

And when even thinking about that doesn’t work and I feel myself starting to lose my cool on a flight, I try to remember that I’m flying! We don’t have wings. We’re not supposed to be able to do that! Boarding an aircraft and feeling the runway fall away from the plane as I’m pushed back in my seat during takeoff, floating above the clouds and catching glimpses of the neatly blocked farms of the midwest, and feeling like this guy, if only for a few hours

A tawny eagle soars above the plains of the Serengeti.

A tawny eagle soars above the plains of the Serengeti.

— it is all a testament to human ingenuity. And, for me, there are always a few zen moments to be found in that thought.

— posted by Siv

74 Responses to “To Recline, Or Not To Recline: That Is The Question”

  1. Intuitive Robin Anderson June 12, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    If I recline, I do it ever so slightly so as not to bother the person behind me. I usually try to consider the feelings of everyone in most things I do unless there is only one cookie left. Wow, what if everyone did that?

  2. madsiers June 12, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    I think the world, in general, could benefit from all of us taking the time every once in a while to consider how our behaviors affect others. I don’t recline with people behind me, because I hate when people do it to me. Period. Most recliners, I’ve noticed, push their seats back the second that they are allowed to, indicating that it’s not a question of comfort, as much of a display of territory marking. These people suck.

    What’s frustratingly ironic in discussions like this one are the people (sorry!) that say, “he pushed his chair back and squashed my head on the tray table.” Why is your head on the tray table??? It’s not designed for that. People put their food on it. More importantly, it tends to shake the hell out of the guy in front of you’s seat. You’ve noticed that your tray table is connected to the seat in front of you, right? Let’s stop doing that, too.

  3. Gem June 15, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    What a thoughtful article! It is such a big issue for people and I have seen it turn into massive arguments. Generally I feel bad about reclining my seat, but if the person in front of me does it I feel more justified. I wonder if it’s pack mentality.
    Anyway the best thing for me (I’m only 5ft4in) is to let it slide, after all it is only for a few hours (I know 16 hours feels like a long time but realistically it isn’t).

    Also when I was in Argentina I just travelled on the buses much more comfortable.

  4. lizziearias July 25, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    I don’t want to sound like a bitch and i actually feel terrible about this situation,but if you know you are going to encounter this problem, book or check in early or pay a little extra to ensure you get a comfortable seat. I am a little vertically challenged and I plan ahead and adjust to a lot of things in my life that tall people take for granted. Im sorry but im not going to give up my reclining rights either and its not a matter of “I paid for this” I know you can plan ahead and on along haul flight its not my fault if you didn’t.


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