To Recline or Not to Recline: The Airplane Seat Domino Dilemma

by Ekua on February 20, 2012 in etcetera,general travel

My row mate and I had the easy camaraderie that comes when you realize that boarding has closed and the third person in your row of three will not be joining you. I unbuckled my seat belt and slid into the window seat that I would have picked had I been able to check in earlier. We smiled at each other as we looked forward to a little extra room and two whole armrests each on our 10 hour flight.

We chatted as we prepared for take off. I learned that he was originally from Northwestern England, close to Wales. He had just finished a California vacation with his family of four. His wife and two teenage kids were seated in the row behind us. They had traveled up and down the state and inland to Yosemite National Park. I was glad to hear that they had thoroughly enjoyed their time in my home state.

I explained that I was stopping in London on my way to Berlin, a last minute trip sparked by acquiring enough frequent flyer miles for a free flight. We continued to talk about travel and life as our plane taxied.

We took off during a gorgeous sunset and I looked down at the misty coast of California taking in the blessedness of it all — where I was going, where I’ve been, where I live.

Then came the announcement that we had reached cruising altitude and a ding signaled that the seat belt sign was being turned off. A few people got up and many more decided to sit back, relax, and enjoy the quality selection of free movies. I could see the airplane seats start recline in domino effect form.

When it reached our row, I joined in. As usual, I was not thrilled with the seat in front of me going down, but like many others, I understand and partake in it because I am not willing to sit upright for 10 hours with my head unnaturally pushed forward by the airplane seat.

To say that my row mate was unhappy when the person in front of him started to recline his seat all the way back would be an understatement.

“I can’t see my telly!” he shouted as he pushed and pounded on the seat in front of him. My row mate was very tall, and I could see that the seat was pressed up against his already cramped knees. I could also imagine that because of his height, optimal viewing of the dinky little TV screens could be harder to achieve with the seat in front of him reclined. But still, his air rage was surprising to see. And the person in front of him was not having it.

I got a little nervous as I recalled an story my mom had shared with me just a couple months before. It was about a flight that had to return to the airport that it departed from because of an overheated argument about seat reclining. One of our family friends happened to be on that flight.

When I read the article, it was the first time I’d ever even given any thought to whether or not you should recline your seat. And I noticed that in the article and some of the comments, the sympathy seemed to lie with the man who was upset with the person in front of him for reclining his seat. Did I miss the you’re-not-supposed-to-recline-airplane-seats memo? After all, what is the purpose of having seats that recline a certain amount if it’s a faux pas to recline them the full amount?

I get it that some people are tall and probably shouldn’t have to pay extra for legroom. But at the the same time, why should the person in front of them feel like they are restricted? What if the person who wants to recline has a back problem or another health issue that would make it even more uncomfortable than it already is to sit upright throughout the flight?

Luckily, on my flight, my row mate and the man in front of him grudgingly reached compromise and no physical fight broke out. My row mate’s initial pleasant demeanor was eventually restored and throughout the flight, he helped me interpret the Welsh accent of our flight attendant.

There were no more arguments for the rest of the flight to London, but the incident at the beginning stayed on my mind. I’ve brought up this story with frequent fliers both short and tall and have gotten very mixed feedback. This includes some shorter travelers who feel that it’s rude to recline your seat all the way and some taller fliers who feel that fellow tall people need to deal with it or pay extra for a seat with more legroom.

What are your thoughts?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee February 21, 2012 at 10:46 am

My father is 6 foot 2 and he also finds it very uncomfortable when the person in front of him reclines his seat, but he’s too nice to make a fuss about it. Personally, I don’t mind a reclined seat in front of me, except when I want to eat. Because I am my father’s child, I tend not to recline my own seat too much so as not to cause discomfort to the person behind me.


Ekua February 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Yeah, I’ve seen plenty of tall people on flights, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone get so heated over the matter. I think most just accept it as a part of traveling without a disposable income. And I don’t think tall people should feel singled out – as a shorter person, I’ve encountered some fellow travelers who infringed on my space in much more absurd ways than reclining a chair!


Herbster February 21, 2012 at 11:48 am

It cost money to fly, it cost more money to fly more comfortably. The extremely obese are required to buy two seats. He had no reason to complain about someone reclining. I can guarantee you there were other unhappy people on the flight for a variety of reason; my seat mate talks too much or stinks, or snores or whatever. When I get on the plane I try to go as zen as possible. Just the other day, seat popped back and the fellow next to me got his knees crunched good. He pulled them back as best he could and didn’t say a thing. C’est La Vie. My personal fav, (NOT) is the kid who kicks your seat back for 2 hrs, all the time the parent repeats over and over, “now Johnny, don’t do that”.

Cest La guerre!


Ekua February 21, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Haha! It’s so true that there are many ways people can impose on your space. I’ve had plenty of fellow passengers who thought my shoulder was a good pillow or people who refused to let me have even one armrest when I got stuck with the middle seat, etc, etc, etc. I could write another post on the subject. Travel is isn’t always pretty, but when it comes down to it, it is a privilege. Trying to maintain a zen attitude while traveling by plane is not easy, but that is definitely something to keep in mind.


Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 21, 2012 at 1:49 pm

I’m tall, so it’s always frustrating when the person in front of me reclines, but I totally understand. It’s something that I’ve accepted being a seasoned traveler. I wish I had the $ to fly 1st class! ๐Ÿ™‚


Ekua February 21, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Yup! Unless you fork over the cash, getting from one place to another isn’t the most graceful process, but we take the bad with lots and lots of good!


dbg February 21, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I come from an airline family (Pan Am) and have been flying since the days when it was still elegant. I’m also close to 6′ tall, but I would never recline fully out of consideration for the person behind me no matter how long the flight. I once spent a 10-hour flight to Istanbul trapped in my window seat so tightly that I couldn’t even reach under the seat in front of me to get my book and had to eat with my food on my lap b/c I couldn’t lower the tray. Since the guy on the aisle was dead drunk and couldn’t be roused, going to the bathroom was harder than usual.

Just because your seat can recline so that your face is in the lap of the person behind you doesn’t mean that you should recline it fully any more than you should blast your iPod so loudly that you share your music with everyone ten rows back. It’s just good manners and mutual consideration. Some people get it and some people don’t.


Ekua February 21, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I am still not convinced that on a long flight, people should not be able to recline their seats if they so choose! Economy seats would be much more comfortable if they reclined as much as you are describing, but unfortunately, they don’t ๐Ÿ˜› When you bring up the days when flying was elegant, it makes me think that if there is a solution to the recliners vs. tall people, part of it lies with airlines to address the way they’ve crowded people into coach while half of the seats that lie flat in business and first class remain empty!

In the Istanbul flight scenario, I definitely think that the person could’ve taken it upon his or herself to raise the seat during the meal service. Letting the flight attendant know probably would’ve done the trick- I’ve seen it before. But overall, to me it sounds like the real rude person in your vicinity was the person in the aisle seat who got too drunk to move!

Even as a shorter person, I know that once the seats go back, it’s really difficult to access anything I put under the seat in front of me. I prepare for this (and the fact that I usually take the window seat) by making sure that I put anything I want to have easy access to during the flight next to me or in the seat back pocket. I just think if you want to travel and don’t have huge amounts of money to put into it, you have to be somewhat adaptable.


This Battered Suitcase February 21, 2012 at 11:18 pm

As much as I hate it when the person in front of me reclines, the option is there and people should have the freedom to take advantage of it. Like you, I just naturally follow the domino effect and recline when the person in front of me does, but I always turn around and make sure the person behind me is sitting in a way that I won’t upset them (i.e. they are not leaning forward at the time). I often even ask the person if it is OK, and they always say yes. Even then I usually don’t recline all the way until everyone seems to be comfortable or asleep, and I always put my seat back up when meals are served.

In terms of back problems – I have sciatica, which affects my lower back and right leg. If I don’t move around or stretch a lot, I can be in severe pain. On long flights, I really do have to recline the seat in order to optimize the space I have to move my leg. I wonder: if I had been the person in front of your row mate and explained this, would he have still reacted with such rage?


Ekua February 22, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Yeah, I often do the little bit at a time thing as well. I might recline the chair slightly when I’m watching a movie and then all the way when I am going to sleep. Like you, I have an issue that makes me more sensitive to this subject – slight scoliosis. It has been corrected for the most part, but sitting upright through a long flight or not reclining the seat all the way when I am *trying* to sleep doesn’t work for me.

My row mate was really a pleasant person other than the seat reclining issue. I am guessing he still would’ve been irritated, but much less hostile had there been a person in front of him who’d explained their need to recline.


C February 29, 2012 at 11:39 am

10 hours is a relatively small amount of time in the scheme of life.
It is a privilege to travels so why complain and be negative?.
Have empathy for others and shake off a narrow view of your life and position in the world!
Be grateful and laugh it off!


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