To Recline or Not To Recline?


January 16, 2017

THE KNEE DEFENDER is back in the news again. That’s the guerilla comfort device that, when surreptitiously inserted in the crook of the seat in front of you, prevents said seat from reclining.

The Knee Defender has been around for a decade, and the whole to-recline-or-not-to-recline debate is at least as old, but a pair of recent in-flight altercations has re-heated the controversy, spawning a slew of rants, op-eds and blog posts on economy class etiquette.

What do I think? I think the ground rules are, or should be, pretty simple: If a seat has a recline function, you are within your rights to use it — to a point. Your right to recline does not preclude you from exercising basic courtesy and politeness. If there’s nobody behind you, recline away. If there is somebody behind you, perhaps ask if he or she minds you coming back an inch or two.

And when you do recline, do it gently. Remember that the person behind you may have items on his or her tray table, and that tray table is (in most cases) attached to your seat. This a particular hazard for laptops, as the screen can become pinched between the table and the upper cushion of the seat-back as it reclines. “Assault recliners” is my term for those passengers who come hauling back at full speed with no warning, leaving you but a split-second to save your computer from this deadly nutcracker, and/or upending your coffee.

Photo by Author

Photo by Author

Several airlines — Cathay Pacific is one — have avoided the problem altogether by installing shell-style seats in which, rather than tipping backwards, the seat pan slides forward, so that even when fully reclined they do not interfere with the space behind you. It’s a nice idea, but many passengers, me among them, find these seats uncomfortable.

As to the Knee Defender device product, it’s hard to justify the thing. As one frequent flyer puts it, “It’s a device designed to force your opinion upon others without any discussion and without compromise. It leads to nothing except confrontation and aggression, and that’s the last type of behavior you want to encourage in a cramped stuffy environment like economy class.”

Cramped and stuffy for sure. But how cramped?

Conventional wisdom holds that the typical economy section is tighter than ever before, with airlines cramming in ever more seats. Well, some are, some aren’t, and in fact row spacing hasn’t changed all that much over the past few decades. Spacing between rows is called “pitch” in the biz. Measured in inches, it’s the distance from one seat-back to the seat-back ahead of it. While it’s true that carriers have been tightening up the rear-most rows to accommodate those roomier (and more expensive) “economy plus” sections up front, average pitch has declined only slightly. JetBlue’s 34-inch standard is currently the most generous among US majors, where the average is 31-32 inches. That’s only an inch or so less than you would have seen 20 or 30 years ago.

Anyone who flew the old PeoplExpress remembers how pitiless and pitchless a cabin can be. Or Laker Airways, whose “SkyTrain” service ran between the US and London in the 1970s. Sir Freddie Laker, the airline’s flamboyant founder, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crunching 345 seats — about a hundred more than the typical DC-10 at the time.

If anything, the average cabin is slightly roomier than it used to be. Legroom is perhaps a bit less, but the cabin overall is wider and taller. The Airbus A380, for example, has the same ten-across floor plan as the 747, but is wider by approximately a foot, while six-abreast aircraft such as the popular A320 have a few more inches of head and elbow room than the 707s and 727s of old. And airlines have been moving to “slimline” seats with a thinner construction that in effect increases pitch by up to three inches per row. And for the record, airlines cannot simply wedge in as many seats as they want. There are restrictions based on the number of emergency exits (as well as the number flight attendants), and most carriers are fairly close to this limit as it stands.

If ever you’ve wondered how it is that airlines can so easily tinker with pitch, check out the floor the next time you fly. You’ll notice the seats are on rails. The hardware is usually covered with plastic caps, but you can see how a row can be slid forward or aft with a minimum of fuss.Economy class seats appear to be cheap and flimsy, but in fact they have to meet all sorts of safety criteria, including G-load limitations. The attachment points on those floor tracks are exceptionally strong.

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53 Responses to “To Recline or Not To Recline?”
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  1. WB says:

    This article strikes a chord with me. At 6’4″ (190cm), I find the leg room in ‘standard’ airline seats to be simply too tight. Fortunately, my preferred airline offers ‘Premium Economy’ which gives me a bit more room – if it’s available. Emergency exit row seats or bulkhead seats are alternatives but these seem to be relegated only to people under 5’5″ or tiny grannies, respectively. Recliner restrainers are unfair to people ahead of me. Instead, I simply squash a pillow between my knees and the seat back and wait for the person to attempt to recline. When they turn to see why they can’t, I simply shrug and say ‘legrooms a bit tight’. I wish airlines would consider some alternative for tall passengers. Research shows that the human species is getting taller – surely there is an equitable solution?

  2. Damien says:

    I think it would be so rude to have a sleep-defender…

  3. Art Knight says:

    I never recline. I have no problem sitting upright for an hour or three. As the late, great Warren Zevon sang…”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead!”

  4. Common Sense says:

    The “knee defender” should be outlawed.

    I’m 6’1″. I have longish legs. I hate it when someone reclines their seat into me.

    But you know what? They bought a ticket that had provision allowing a recline.

    *I* bought a ticket knowing someone in front of me could recline.

    And finally, if I don’t want a recline in front of me, there’s other tickets available that I can pay for. Sure, it’s a premium, but the point is that each of us has a choice.

    I have very little sympathy for someone who thinks they are entitled to change the rules that we ALL bought tickets under. They are not entitled to go out, buy a Knee Defender, and change that up.

    So. When the guy in front of me reclines, I don’t bitch, and if I feel like reclining, I recline. End of story.

  5. John says:

    Flying SW my little secret is L and R side cabin seats just astern of the over-wing emergency exits have no seat directly in front of them.

  6. cjh says:

    My most vivid memory of PeoplExpress was the scene shortly after takeoff: Down the aisle comes a cart. But that’s not the beverage service, yet; it’s a cash register!

  7. Amusing traveler says:

    I flew on Etihad last August, and they do good thing about seat reclining. I had to use force to recline my seat, otherwise just button and my back’s force wasn’t enough. Quite a good warning for the behind person, otherwise they would yell for their laptop (actually no one was behind me)

  8. Howard L. says:

    I think the big issue here is “first-time flyers” who do not know how to fly and find the new environment ripe for experimentation. Hence, slamming the seat back as hard as they can. “Hey! Look at this! Cool!” Back and forth a hundred times until some brave soul finally folds said passenger into his seat. And the tray table: “Hey! Look at this!” as he proceeds to open and slam it shut a hundred times…
    Perhaps, and I know this is a dream, but perhaps the airlines should add a “Courtesy Briefing” at the end of the Safety Briefing. “And for the courtesy and comfort of your fellow passengers, please do not slam your tray tables, recline your seat fully and rapidly or put your stinking, smelly feet between the seats in front of you. Thank you for flying Delta.” But since we know no one listens to the all important Safety Briefing, why would we think they would listen to anything with the word “Courtesy” in it? Or why the Airlines would care–time is money.
    It all goes back to the Golden Days when men flew in suits and women flew in elegant dress, a time long, long gone by. Replaced sadly by uninformed, unskilled and uncouth flying vagabonds.
    Try this next time you have to fly “Steerage”: wear a black “Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out!” Special Forces t-shirt and make sure the punks in the seats in front and behind you see it when you put your carry on bag–the one with the “Smith and Wesson Team” logo on it, in the storage bin. Works for me!

    • Sandy says:

      YES what is with the recent trend of people putting their feet up on the armrests of the seat in front of them like they’re at the OB/GYN? I always ask them to move or turn around and look at them, and it’s usually middle-aged folks. Why do you think I want your smelly feet or stinky sneakers touching my arms?

  9. John says:

    As I see it, my ticket price includes my space AND comfort. Those who see otherwise are rude and ignorant, not those that I would count among my friends. The only possible solution is to limit the amount of space that a seat can recline. If it is not to some passengers liking, to bad. These are the people that give air travel a bad name.

  10. international traveler says:

    I am 5’9″ so not that tall but I feel I usually barely have enough room. On a recent flight the man in front not only reclined fully but also leisurely placed his left arm up over the back of his chair so I had a big hairy man-hand inches from my face. After ‘accidentally’ knocking the hand twice with my book I had no choice but to recline. How can people be so clueless? I did not want to make a scene especially on a long flight. In general, I find the fully upright seats uncomfortably upright especially for 10 or more hours. I usually only recline about an inch just to feel comfortable. Once the person behind me is down for the night, I’ll recline. Once, a Chinese woman slathered her feet on an international flight with something that smelled really strong…a Bengay sort of lotion. I had to breathe through my blanket. Oh…and the guy from J’Burg with the really bad breath. I’m sorry I didn’t turn my head to talk to you. I really try to think about my actions in relationship to the people around me. Smells count folks!

  11. Wiremom says:

    Rude behavior is not limited to the US nor to Coach class. I was on a 737, LH from FRA to MAD. Business class was essentially Economy Plus seating, but with no occupied middle seats, so pretty roomy. I reclined my seat about 1/2 way about 30 minutes into the flight (standard pitch) only to have a very old man start banging on the seat back and trying to force my seat back up. He was cursing and belligerent and I told him I’m fine to move or put my seat back up if he would just be polite about it. He continued to curse and throw a fit so I ignored him. I try to be conscious of those around me and will recline just an inch or two to give my back a break. I usually work so it’s easier for me to more upright anyway. But really, people, chill.

    • Ivan says:

      I’m with you on this. Ask politely and I will accommodate as much as I can. Be rude and I will do as I please within the limits of what I paid for.
      Also, reclining slowly to give the person behind you time to react is the bare minimum one can do.

  12. Wm Wesson says:

    For those that are kind enough not to recline or nice enough to ask I thank you.
    I am 6’5″ and if the person in front reclines it is a very painful flight. My knees are already touching before they recline.

    • JRSherrard says:

      At 6’6, I have knee defenders – they’re called knees. No one in front of me CAN recline unless I go to the bathroom. It’s a distressing state of affairs for the tall and all who must sit in front of us. We just don’t fit, not because of a flaw in our nature, but because airline seats are design for humans under 6′ tall.

      One galling item: for those of us well over 6′, there are few more annoying sights than exit rows filled with small people.

  13. Some people have to recline because they have lower back issues. Reclining is the only way to mitigate the pain. That said, most situations can be negotiated so that people get most of their needs met – swapping seats, partial recline, reclining at certain times, etc. It does involve talking to the other passengers.
    I keep hearing people say that the recliner had their head in the lap of the person behind them. Um, last time I looked domestic seats only reclined by a few inches, around 10 degrees at most. I think using hyperbole like that inhibits a much needed discussion. Best to sick to the facts.

  14. Jeff Guinn says:

    “The seat you paid for includes the recline function and the space that goes along with it. The space you paid for in front of you ends at the next seatback in its reclined position.”

    What about the poor SOBs in the last row in coach? Their seats don’t recline at all. Which means those in the penultimate row shouldn’t recline, right? And so forth, right to the front of the plane.

    (I never recline more than a tiny bit, and only before looking first. Except for fast reflexes, I would have had a laptop smashed by a slam recliner.)

    • mjg says:

      Sometimes there is last-row recline, sometimes not. It all depends on the airline. If there is emergency equipment behind the last row, then airlines prefer to leave some recline space to improve access to it.

      • Jeff Guinn says:

        True, but that is avoiding the point. If there is a row on the plane that can’t recline, then the whole line of reasoning that “I got mine on account of you got yours” collapses.

        (Also, SFAIK, the row just in front of an exit row doesn’t recline, either.)

        • mjg says:

          Jeff, zero recline in the row ahead of the emergency exit is the FAA’s fault not the airline’s. The FAA will not allow anything to intrude into the escape path from the aisle to the window hatch. Moving a seat upright for takeoff and landing is OK for access to the aisle from a seat, but not from the aisle to the emergency exit

    • JLockley says:

      I always assumed that everyone reclined. It was just part of the protocol. I generally recline fairly early so I can sleep – most of my flying is long distance. So does the entire plane.
      I have had two incidents in which large men in front of me kept slamming their seats back into my knees, but otherwise had no issues.

      On a recent flight my seat in the back row did actually recline..I though a bit more than the standard seats. Perhaps I should keep that to myself.

      The idea of creating a set of seats which do not recline makes absolute sense. Cattle car business section.

      As for the double wide passengers who take up the seat next to them, too (I dread sitting next to someone wider than the seat on a thirteen hour flight), I noticed that a number of European airlines are now offering extra wide seats. Great idea.

  15. Fred says:

    Have you ever had to divert because of a passenger behavior issue? What seems to me to be driving the current discussion is the tension between passengers wanting the cheapest possible ticket and their inability to behave collegially when packed into the very tight quarters required for transporting the most people in an airframe with a fixed volume.

  16. mjg says:

    – “seat back in your lap” is nonsense. Most economy seats today even on long distance flights do not recline any more than 3 to 5 inches.

    – “knee crusher” is also nonsense. Seat backs pivot at their bottom, which is approximately knee height. If the top of the seat moves 3 to five inches, the seatback at kneecap height moves a small fraction of that if at all. The “defender” is not defending anything.

    – the “knee defender” is illegal. They must be banned. The FAA approves seats and their installation based on conformity to a certified seat configuration. The defender alters that configuration without any FAA-approved service bulletin or any other engineering paperwork. In case of any accident if any seats had defenders installed the airline could be in serious legal trouble, even if the defenders did not cause any injuries.

  17. Rachel says:

    Thank you! Just because a seat can recline, doesn’t mean that it should recline!

  18. Simon says:

    People that recline during meal service or people who assault recline without even checking first are simply rude. Unfortunately there’s little you can do about that other than making sure you never act like that yourself.

    That said, gadgets like this knee defender are inappropriate. IMHO airlines should ban bringing them onboard and if nevertheless found in use they should be confiscated. On the other hand, reclining during meal service should not be allowed either. If common sense and courtesy does not work I’m afraid rules and bans will take their place.

    • Ad absurdum per aspera says:

      Maybe instead of “The Knee Defender” we should call it “The Passive-Aggressive Wedgie.”

      I wonder what the incidence of using these devices really is. They’ve been much in the news lately — but I think it’s overblown.

      Out of the immense amount of commercial airline service — a daily total of about two million people in the US alone — the media has widely reported on what, three or four incidents in which the use of this device prompted a diversion or otherwise newsworthy disturbance?

      I daresay the people who take it that far have, shall we say, some unchecked baggage…

  19. JamesP says:

    Yeah, I’m a pro-recliner too. I don’t see how somebody in front of us reclining his seat comes at such a surprise to so many people (where they get their drinks spilt and laptops mangled). Look, we all know the seats recline. We all know that, once the plane’s off the ground, that baby’s a’ comin’ back. Expect it.

    It’s part of the charm of flying steerage. We get to fly from LAX to NYC for $309, round trip. Half the cost of gas if we were to drive (forget about the obvious savings on time and lodging costs).

    I can’t stand the crowded seats either, so I pay more to fly on an airline that has longer seat pitch, and pay a bit more again to have a seat with more room. Even after all that, it’s still cheap to fly.

    • Alex says:

      Exactly. Reclining seats have been around for decades. Why is it suddenly now such an issue?

      Chalk it up to the growing entitlement society, IMO.

  20. Ann says:

    Airlines could divvy up the plane, making the right side for almighty knee-defenders-on laptops and the left side for recliners with books and pillows. In spite of the loud battles lately, I bet most would choose the left side and the right side would half-fill with the hotheads who will complain about something else –odors, girths, peanuts, oh my…

    Except for LAN, I haven’t seen a coach seat that reclines more than 2 inches in several years, which makes the knee level pinch about 1/2 an inch –much less dramatic than claimed. Never had someone’s head in my face, their hair in my food or my drink spilled. There’s a lot of exaggeration going on.

    I dread the non-reclining age as the upright position gives me a headache from being hunched forward and means no sleep on a redeye. I’m 5’8′ but the spacing doesn’t allow my legs straight in front of me anyway so the seat position in front doesn’t matter at all.

  21. Speed says:

    Matt Zwolinski at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has a piece titled, ““Don’t Lean on Me!” The Ethics of the Knee Defender.”

    In part …
    Airlines buy planes with seats that recline because they want customers to be able to lean back, just like they make seats with televisions in them because they want customers to be able to watch them. If you’re bothered by passengers around you watching television or leaning back, you’re free to ask them to stop. But you’re not free to forcibly prevent them by disabling their television or their seat.

    He concludes, “To have a property right in something is simply to have the ability to make enforceable claims on that thing, should one choose to do so. But just because you have the ability doesn’t mean you should exercise it.” Which pretty well sums up the thoughtful and reasonable comments above.

  22. Jason says:

    To those who say “I paid for the recline function”: This is true but I also paid for the ability to get out of my seat to use the restroom so if our interests collide and you’re inconvenienced by me bouncing off of your seat as I exit, well, I’m just as inconvenienced by having to bounce off of said seat so I say we’re even. Neither of us are happy and it’s the fault of the designers so save your dirty looks.

    Personally, I recline just a little only after checking. I have gone all the way back only if there is no one behind me but for the most part I don’t even find that more comfortable.

    And now if typing in all caps is the internet equivalent of shouting, please indulge me here so I don’t have to shout it on the plane. Ahem… IF YOU ARE RECLINING YOUR SEAT DURING THE MEAL SERVICE ON AN AIRPLANE, YOU ARE A TOOL! No “yes but…” Tool.

  23. nicholas Robinson says:

    It’s a very sad commentary on the state of flying today that the 787 — the “Nitemare Liner” as I have personally dubbed it — is very, very far from the new, updated luxury plane that we have all been led to believe.

    I remember, in the 2000s, actually being on some sort of faux “consulting” board that Boeing had on its 787 website, where we, the peons of the traveling public could actually make “choices” that Boeing assured everyone that “everyone’s vote counts; what do YOU want in a new aircraft?” and naively entering multiple-choice answers to questions such as “larger carryon luggage space” and crap like that.

    How dumb I was, to actually think that Boeing would actually enter my choice into some nameless design database from which they would draw when designing the “Dreamliner.”

    Well, the verdict is in, in my case: the “Dreamliner” is most definitely the “Nitemareliner” (50s spelling on purpose) because let me tell you, my ride in economy from YYZ to HND was a “Nitemare.”

    They’ve managed to somehow REDUCE the seat pitch, but also, make the actual seat cushion MORE uncomfortable than any other previous craft — usually, my ass gets numb, then starts to seriously hurt after about two hours, making shifting of knees/legs essential, sometimes as often as every ten minutes. This was on a 12-hour flight, so you can imagine the horror.

    I’m not tall — 5′ 9″ — but I found that even then, I could NOT CROSS ONE FOOT ABOVE MY OTHER KNEE because of the seat in front of me — which was in no way reclined!

    Most savvy travelers — in fact, just most travelers don’t recline their seats at all these days. At least, the ones I’ve encountered. But if anyone had, on that 12-hour flight — to the fully reclined position — I would have been trapped like a rabbit in a snare. There is *no* way I would eve been able to open a laptop, let alone read a magazine. The top of the person’s seat would have been about eight inches from my face.

    I *know* I would never subject anyone behind me to that — I *always* check who is sitting behind me and make sure that if they are active, awake and mobile, I do not restrict their flight by reclining even *one inch.* It’s no big deal to me — reclining three inches does not a joyous journey make, when I can’t even cross my own legs without Houdini-like contortions.

    Shit like the “Knee defender” is just plain stupid. Sorry, to bash a demon on the head, “just plane stupid.”

    Flying in Economy nowadays is akin to waiting in an ER waiting room for 12 hours straight, except a lot more physically demanding.

    Thinking this is going to go away any time soon is pure fantasy. If i could somehow drive to Japan from Montreal, trust me, I would.

    • Simon says:

      I actually had a very pleasant Dreamliner flight with JAL to NRT. So let me just point out that many of your complaints have more to do with the airline, than the airliner.

      The seats are installed according to the airline’s choice. Your airline might have chosen a cheap uncomfortable seat, but other airlines have equipped their Dreamliners with more comfortable seats. The same goes for the seat pitch. Seat rows are adjustable (notice the rail in the floor), so the airline decides how much pitch you get. The Dreamliner allows for about as much pitch as you can imagine, but ultimately it’s the cheap airline that decided to make it 29″ for a 12 hour flight.

      That all said, I know how you felt. I’ve been there myself. All I can suggest is to buy Economy Plus/Extra/Comfort or whatever they call it whenever you can. Avoid airlines with narrow pitch or poor seats. Avoid airlines that do not offer an improved economy class. Airlines do not listen to much. And no, platinum status does not change that (F & C class does though). But the one thing that without any doubt gets their attention is your money. Don’t reward crappy companies with your business. Ever.

    • Alex says:

      The seats & pitch are chosen by the individual airlines, not the manufacturer.

  24. Simon IOM says:

    Personally, I find the “stall warning stick shaker” passenger more annoying, when they are sitting behind you and need to go to the bathroom or feel the need to get up just to rummage through their luggage in the overhead locker and take nothing out or put nothing in it as if someone on board has taken something from it unnoticed by anybody else, they stand up before the other people aisle side of them have had time to get up and let them out, and then they stand there rattling the top of your seat backwards and forwards for ages balancing before that final big push to eject themselves out form their window seat into the aisle.

  25. Siegfried says:

    “Assault recliners” – good term.

    I agree, common courtesy is the way to go. Nearly nobody would be so rude to say “no” if being asked politely by the person in front if he/she could recline the seat. But when confronted with a seat on the kneecap, most people might react stressed.

  26. Tom in Las Vegas says:

    This is not the passenger’s problem. This is all on the airlines. Trying to jam more and more seats to squeeze the last dime has caused this. There should be an FAA minimum seat pitch. And now an FAA regulation on reclining is needed. Trying to make the “market” solve this is insane. I am over 6-0 in height and my knees are jammed in the seatback, my own knees are the “protector”. The seat ahead acts like its a constitutional right to recline. I say the opposite because you are reclining into my space. But the airlines are the crooks here, they did it.

    • nicholas Robinson says:

      I’m 5/9.

      I’m always extremely sorrowful for larger passengers — if it’s hard for me, what’s it like for them? They don’t choose to weigh 275 pounds or be 6 feet 7 inches tall.

      I NEVER get peevish about other passengers’ size or how they take up my armrest. Imagine what it’s like for them!!!

  27. Mike says:

    “Workspace sanctity”? I’ve started to see this pop in a number of articles about this issue. Who says the little tray on the back of the seat is a “workspace”? The people who think it is a laptop desk. That’s who. The only part of a plane suitable for business is, well, business class. I’d wager that on any given flight there are more people trying to sleep than people trying to peck away at laptop computer keyboards. You said it at the beginning of the article: If the seat has a recline feature, all parties should be prepared for it to be used that way. Heck, a quarter of the seats I’ve flown in the last few years recline without me even pushing the button.

  28. Alex says:

    Although I may get some flak for this, I’m going to say it anyway…I’m a staunch pro-recliner.

    The seat you paid for includes the recline function and the space that goes along with it. The space you paid for in front of you ends at the next seatback in its reclined position.

    Now I’ll try to be courteous, not reclining during meal times and bringing the seat back slowly, but I’m not sitting in a straight, upright seat for hours on end just because some person behind me thinks they’re entitled to something that they’re not. I’ll compromise for a tall person, but let’s be real…unless you’re at least over six feet tall, you shouldn’t be having an issue. I’m 5′ 11” and have never had my “knees crushed” or anything of the sort. And God help you if you try to stick a knee defender in my seat, because we’re going to have issues (I’ll win too, as most airlines prohibit their use).

    I’m all for the shell-type seats, but I don’t expect to see them on US carriers anytime soon. Bottom line: If that few extra inches of legroom is that important to you, upgrade to Economy Plus, Main Cabin Extra, etc., or an exit row seat. It’s not that expensive.

    That’s all for now. Let the name calling begin…

    • Mark Maslowski says:

      I’m 6′ 5″ and the first thing I do when I sit down is to inform the person in front of me that unless they give me warning, my knees are going to prevent them from reclining. Most people are very accommodating with this approach.

    • nicholas Robinson says:

      No name calling! You’re definitely entitled to recline.

      However, I must say that in the past couple of years, in my experience on planes, is that people — no matter what race or nationality — have all become seriously timid about reclining.

      I mean, GONE are the days where the guy in front of me — or anyone else, for that matter, goes “Aaaaaahhhhh” and pushes his seat back all the way. People just don’t do it any more. Whether it’s just an innate sense of fairness — you don’t need a PhD to know that if you recline all the way your head will almost literally be in someone’s lap — but I think the traveling public have genuinely changed in their views of what air travel has become — for all of us.

      I’ve been in security lines where it’s been ludicrous — one line open (at Toronto!) for 150 passengers, to the point where you get that guy walking by shouting “Anyone here on the five o’clock flight?”

      When The Five O’Clock Flight Guy comes around, you know things are bad. But I have found so much sympathy in those around me — people in front, people behind — it’s almost a “lifeboat”-type situation: “Go ahead. You have less things than me.” “No, no, no, it’s okay, I have lots of time until my flight” etc. etc.

      And there is most definitely an “Us against them” attitude — if it were a ship’s crew I would say it bordered on mutiny.

      Hey, maybe I’m just lucky on the flights I’ve been taking. But I will say that in most cases, my fellow passengers have formed this almost invisible chain of linked hands. I have never — EVER — been on a flight where some passenger has caused a drunken ruckus. Or any kind of ruckus, for that matter.

      For my part, I have a set of personal rules: eat something before you get on board. Don’t be silly; a human being can even survive for 13 hours with only a couple of crackers!

      This obviates the need for food trays to be in front of you and all the awkward elbow-knocking, PLUS that the likelihood that you will need to use the bathroom is less (I always fly window, so I can lean on the bulkhead (?) to get to sleep.)

      Further, no matter who my fellow seatmates are — perhaps they’re Chinese, have never flown and don’t speak a word of English — I let them quickly know I’m on their side. Maybe that includes helping one of them get his bulky carryon into the overhead bin. But you would be surprised how faithful a friend you will have just created.

      The people in front of me — like I said, they rarely recline any more. But on long flights, sometimes one of their pillows will slip between the seats and end up in my tray table area. I just get up and politely hand them their pillow, with a smile and a nod — or do ANYTHING to make ANY of my seatmates’ lives easier. If I absolutely HAVE to go to the bathroom, making my seatmates get out of their seats, maybe (I usually wait until one or the other has already gone) I will ask them if they need anything from the galley.

      They always say no, but hey, it doesn’t hurt.

      And if the guy in front of me DOES recline his seat as far back as possible, I just swallow and hunker down deeper into my 1.5 square feet of space and try to go to sleep.

      I figure, that’s the least I can do.

      So be my guest — recline away.

      • Alex says:

        “I mean, GONE are the days where the guy in front of me — or anyone else, for that matter, goes “Aaaaaahhhhh” and pushes his seat back all the way. People just don’t do it any more.”

        I do….hahaha. And I see plenty of other people do it. I’ve routinely seen people snap their seats back the second the wheels leave the ground.

        But then again, most seats only go back a couple inches. Hardly “in anyone’s lap.”

  29. susan says:

    as long as seats recline, folks gonna recline. a whole lot of cattle class seats are broken or worn out meaning that the hard stop on the seat mechanism is the only thing that works. push the button and KLUNK. it flops back. I’ve been on both ends-giving AND receiving.

    agree that the person behind is not the one that gets to dictate the recline although, as you mention, politeness and etiquette have sorta disappeared in our culture.

    for me, the arm rest is a much bigger point of contention. why is it that the man who sits in the next seat feels entitled not only to the entire armrest, but to 20% of my upper body space as well? and god forbid the large individual who flips up the armrest so that s/he can “share” the part of my seat that I’m not using!!

  30. JuliaZ says:

    I’m short (5’3″) and I don’t care if the person in front of me reclines into “my” space, especially if they are kind enough to warn me (spilling my drink annoys me though).

    I often say hi to the person behind me as we get situated and if I see that they are tall, offer to not recline. It’s sad how thrilled many people are when I offer this tiny little thing. Thanks for spreading civil behavior, Patrick. We really could use more of it in coach… but as our elementary school teachers always said, courtesy is contagious.

    • nicholas Robinson says:

      Yeah, simply saying a couple of words to the people around you while either getting seated (good) or being already seated (okay) is a great idea. Then you form this amorphous “life raft” group that subsequently seems to “look after all its members” equally.

      Very, very important, in my opinion. Once the “group” has been initiated, it is extremely difficult for any one of them to offend any other. Trust me on this, and do it if you can. In this case, I posit that six members — you and your row and the row in front of you, forms a “life-raft” group.

      However, including the row behind you cements this into a “gang” that will literally fight for each others’ rights if it ever comes to blows. There will certainly be no “infighting.”

  31. Simon says:

    I believe ANA has a seat where you don’t actually recline into the space of the person in the back, but instead you lower the seat back by moving the front of the seat a bit up and forward into your own leg space.

  32. I agree with you completely. Common sense should prevail. When someone brings one of those devices on an airplane to begin with, they are already acting hostile. If someone starts to recline so far back that they are in your lap, it is acceptable to ask the person to lift up a little. Traveling has gotten so much more angry in my opinion. Lighten up people. Enjoy the flight, you won’t be on the plane forever. If you can’t follow common courtesy, spend the extra money and sit in first class.

    • Eirik says:

      Amen to that.
      Although I think most people behave, there are some with the me-me-me-attitude. “Whatever your situation is, as long as Im comfy”.

      And Im surprised how much garbage some passenger are able to leave behind on a 2 hour flight. Potato chips, M&M`s, magazines, inflight magazines. You name it. It looks like a bomb went off in their seat.
      I always bring my stuff with me if they didnt pick it up already.
      Sure they are paid to clean up, but jeez.

      Reclining is fine, but I had one that totally pissed me off. And it takes a lot to piss me off, trust me. 1 min after take off, his seat went back with a bang. And he didnt stop there. He kept pushing his back to the seat, as if he thought it wasnt totally reclined already.

      I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but after 20 seconds with pushing and banging I just snapped and quite loudly I told him;
      – Hey, are you done already!!?? If you wanna sit on my lap, just f*** ask me!!

      It just came out, and a lot more loud than I expected. Passengers next to us started laughing, his seat went to upright position and he never reclined again. Although I told him it was ok, just take it easy. I felt kinda bad too. I think I embarrassed him. But if he learned a lesson, Im good.

    • CRStardust says:


  33. Tod Davis says:

    I think that on short domestic routes there is no need to recline at all but for a long haul if you don’t recline you can’t really sleep