To recline or not to recline, that does seem to be the question nowadays. We always knew airline space was limited, but epic battles 30,000 feet above sea level have now diverted three planes as passengers duke it out, screaming and shouting, tossing soda on one another, and so on. I wish we were joking, but we’re not. And so if you travel enough, you must too be asking: What’s the proper etiquette on reclining seats when in limited space with other passengers? We’ve got some thoughts on this and suggestions on how to deal with the shrinking economy seat!

I despise abusive recliners.  My theory is everything within reason. I don’t expect someone won’t recline, but there are a few ways to tick me off with your recline.

So before anything else, let me share my not so secret secret for avoiding reclining drama: Sit behind the one row on an airplane that can never recline: The one right in front of an emergency exit. Most airlines won’t allow seats to recline into an exit row. On a typical 737 though, there are usually two exit rows back to back in the middle of the airline. If you sit in the first of these two rows, the seats in front of you can’t recline, but you also can’t recline your seat. Sit in the second row though, and you get reclining abilities while the row in front of you does not.

How do you get these seats? Elite status is the easiest way. Paying a little extra is the second easiest way. And finally politely asking during check in if they’re available is the third possibility.

How Low Will You Go?

First, you don’t need to recline your seat ALL THE WAY. You know how cramped our shared space already is, and when you’re in a standard economy seat and you recline all the way, you impede upon my ability to eat a meal in peace, work on my laptop, breathe, etc…

There’s a Time and a Place For Everything

If you’re going to recline, be considerate. If it’s a flight with a meal, don’t have your seat reclined during meal service.  Why? I think this picture says enough.

Reclining Seat Meal Service

Slowly Recline

If I am planning to recline my seat, I look behind me and slowly put it back. Doing this is respectful, and ensures if the person behind me needs to move anything they have time to do so.

On a Red-Eye?

If you’re on a red-eye and you hate reclining seats, guess what: You’re out of luck. It’s like an unwritten rule that on flights that go over night, the seats will recline. Sorry!

What if someone reclines too far on you?

It’s amazing I even have to say this, but such is the passive aggressive text message based world we live in. Talk to the person in front of you. In all my experiences of talking to someone who reclined all the way back, only once was the person a jerk. Usually if I politely tap them on the shoulder and say “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to move your seat up just a little bit? I don’t want to take away your chance to rest, but I am working on a project and just need a bit more space.” Usually the person says sure and when I get the space I need, I let them know “that’s more than great- thank you.”

What It Comes Down To

Things will get better before they get worse. Consider the average seat width on an airplane is 17 inches-compared to 19 inches for an average stadium seat or 25 inches for a movie theater seat. As for average seat pitch, the technical term for the space between two seats, most airlines average between 31 and 35 inches and guess what, the trend is moving toward the smaller number there, not larger. And if Airbus has it’s way with it’s new patent seat, some flights you’re on, the seats might get even more uncomfortable as you can see below… 

Above all else, let’s keep some simple rules here: You won’t throw a beverage on another passenger. You won’t EVER cuss at, scream at, or do anything else that degrades the flight attendants and not just because you fear being arrested mid-air by an air marshal, but because it’s just plain wrong to do. You will use your words, just like you encourage your young child to do to become a functioning member of society and politely communicate with another passenger. And if things don’t work out, you’ll first seek alternatives “Are there any other free seats on this airplane?” should be the first thing you ask the flight attendant. If not, as much as it stinks, find a way to make peace with the situation, because we all know the dude snoring peacefully in front of you has. Really though, here’s hoping more of us act like adults!

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