Rules to Reclining Your Airplane Seat: The Etiquette Guide

Do you fancy having your legs pinned by the tray table as the person in front of you starts reclining their airplane seat all of a sudden? Neither does the person behind you.

With the ever-decreasing legroom in commercial aircraft, whether to recline seats in economy class, and how to do it, are major debates.

The pitch measurement of economy class seats has shrunk to a diminutive 28 inches in recent years. This means, now more than ever, passengers are restricted to contorted positions on long-haul flights. Reclining your airplane seat is the only flicker of hope in this situation. So, it’s only reasonable to want to recline.

However, reclining your airplane seat is trickier than it sounds. It’s a controversial topic that needs to be handled with care. Otherwise, a skirmish in the skies is all but guaranteed.

We have condensed the process into seven simple steps. Let’s check them out.

Rule 1: Watch Your Back

The primitive ways of the jungle are still relevant, it seems. You need to watch your back before you can relax.

But the intent is quite different. What you need to look out for isn’t danger, but signs that you are not hurting someone in your quest for comfort. This is the optimal way to avoid conflict.  

Never recline your seat in the following situations:

  • During meal service. The person behind you is likely eating. If you recline back, it could spill their food all over them.
  • If the person behind you has knee braces due to a medical condition. Reclining back could injure their knees.
  • If the person behind you is unusually tall, hurting their knees could be a factor as well. Wait and see if they request you not to recline too much.
  • When the seat is occupied by your child, reclining is unnecessary.
  • No need to recline for quick commuter trips of less than two hours.
  • Don’t recline when the plane is climbing or making its final descent to land.

Rule 2: Notify, Don’t Ask

Even if you have checked that there are no visible reasons for not reclining, it is still not a good idea to go ahead suddenly. If you recline without notifying the other person, they are likely to be taken by surprise.

Here are some subtle ways to notify the passenger behind you before you begin reclining your airplane seat:

  • Make it obvious that you’re checking to see if you can recline. If they catch you glancing, they’ll be better prepared.
  • You can peek back with a smile and nodding gesture to indicate your intention.
  • If the person behind you is already reclined, you can go ahead and recline as well.
  • If they are not reclined, then recline your seat gradually. Give your seat a 10-20% recline. If there is no sign of protest, recline further back.

Remember that you should never ask the person behind whether you can recline or not. It is not their permission to give. And you are well within your rights. Besides, if given the choice, most people would ask you not to recline. So why give them the opportunity?

Rule 3: Expect and Respect Resistance

Encroaching on someone’s already limited personal space is bound to ruffle some feathers. But it doesn’t need to turn into a dogfight.

Reaching a middle ground should be your prime motive here. If you want to recline and the person behind you is protesting against it, make them an offer of not reclining all the way back.

Maybe you can still fly quite comfortably with only a 40% recline. Then there is no need to tilt your seat back any more than that. Something is better than nothing. This way, both you and your fellow passenger can get what they want to some extent.

Rule 4: Words Speak Louder Than Actions

Sometimes, you can be in the opposite situation as well. Maybe you are the one being inconvenienced by the person in front of you. How should you approach them?

Here’s everything you should and shouldn’t do while asking someone to move their seat forward:

  • Gently tap their shoulder and explain your situation. Make sure you have a solid reason that’s more serious than “I don’t like it” or “It’s uncomfortable”.
  • Your tone matters. If you say it nicely with a smile, they are more likely to accede to your request. Smiling can also defer any possibility of hostility.
  • Even if things don’t seem to be going your way, get a grip on your temper. Verbal abuse and shouting aren’t going to resolve anything.
  • Never resort to physical force, like pushing or kicking their seat.
  • Shady ploys, like sticking something against the seat so it doesn’t recline, are also likely to get you in trouble.

Stay calm and resolve the matter amicably. Giving in to anger will put the entire plane against you, even if you are in the right. Politeness is your path to comfort.

Rule 5: It’s Time to Call the Flight Attendant

When things seem out of hand and an amicable resolution is out of the question, it’s time to bring in a third person with authority: the flight attendant.

Remember that flight attendants have more important responsibilities to attend to than getting entangled in your squabble. So, calling them in should be your last resort.

Since this is quite an old and popular dispute, the cabin crew most probably faces this issue often. So, you can leave it to them to sort it out for you.

Rule 6: Accept “No” As an Answer

Understand the logistics of the situation here. The person occupying the seat decides whether to recline it or not, and by how much. You can make a request, and so can the flight attendant, but it is not an order the passenger is bound to follow.

So, if you’re unfortunate enough to deal with someone totally unwilling to compromise, your pleas will fall on deaf ears. They will do what they want despite how much inconvenience they are causing.

This is where you need to stop. No use in trying to convince this person any further.

No matter how hard you try, sometimes you fail, and there is nothing you can do about it. So, accept this as your ill luck and do your best to occupy yourself for the remainder of the flight.

Rule 7: Moving Seats Is Your Best Bet Now

If your situation is really serious and you simply cannot bear another second of having someone’s seat nestled in your lap, try to get your seat changed. An exit row seat is a great option since it usually has more legroom. Also, the seats in front of exit rows don’t recline. There’s no possibility of a mid-air confrontation there.

The flight attendants can assist you with this. Maybe they’ll offer an empty seat themselves if they fail to get the person in front to stop reclining their seat.

The Quest for Comfort

The fact is, unless you’re willing to shell out the money to fly first class, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be perfectly comfortable on a long-haul flight. However, by taking the right steps, you can minimize the discomfort.

One way you can breathe a little easier on your next international flight is by purchasing travel insurance before your trip. A travel insurance plan can help reimburse you for prepaid, nonrefundable expenses in case your flight gets cancelled or delayed, and can provide coverage for lost or delayed baggage, and unexpected medical issues abroad. It’s one way you can reduce the stress of international travel, even when your seat is in its full upright, and locked position.

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