Holiday etiquette: Do not recline your airline seat


I could smell his hair.

Just when I thought the flight from San Diego to Seattle couldn’t get any worse, the husky, middle-aged businessman reclined his seat back with vigor, pressing my laptop into my spleen and his luxurious locks toward my face.

Reclining seats in coach should be a crime. Or at least reportable to Santa during the busy holiday travel season.

The space wars

Personal space is an important matter in this country, but something that the aviation industry seems oblivious to. Flights are fuller, and airlines continue offering customers less and less room. It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse until we put a stop to it.

And so we are: last year, a flight to Denver was diverted because a man was using the Knee Defender—a plastic gizmo that locks onto your tray table arms, and prevents the seat in front of you from reclining fully (or at all, depending on where you position the gadget). The man, who was using his computer and thus needed all of his meager lap space, blocked the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. She didn’t appreciate his pragmatism however, and threw a cup of water at him. Eventually, authorities had to kick both combatants off the plane.

While the Knee Defender is a creative product, it provokes confrontations at 30,000 feet in the air, which is the last place you want one. The Federal Aviation Administration, which deals with airline safety, has not prohibited its use, but most airlines have. But the sheer existence of something like the Knee Defender screams that this issue needs resolving.

Pressing factors

A major factor in the space wars is that while people (Americans in particular) keep getting bigger, the room we have while flying continues to shrink. According to travel expert Bill McGee, the pitch (industry lingo for the amount of room between seats) has shrunk by 2 inches in the past few years. The roomiest airline now still offers less passenger space than the smallest one did in the 1990s. Today, Qantas provides their customers the least amount of room, a mere 28 inches, but at least their seats don’t recline.

The website ran a poll and found 41 percent of people thought it was either rude or very rude to recline your seat. One can only surmise that this percentage wasn’t higher because reclining has been an acceptable practice for so many years. When planes provided more room and airlines treated customers like human beings instead of cattle, reclining didn’t violate the personal space of the passenger behind you.

But as airlines slowly robbed travelers of space, seat reclining became first an annoyance and then an impediment, preventing you from performing basic tasks like comfortably eating your (no-longer complimentary) meal, or even getting up to use the bathroom. Meanwhile, the emergence of laptop computers created another problem—a reclined seat can actually break one.

The solution

This didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a slow burn. But until the airlines show that they actually care about their customers, considerate humans should follow these steps if they absolutely feel the need to recline that five degrees:

1) Ask the person behind you if it’s OK.

2) Gently lean your seat back.

That’s it.

The only foolproof solution to this problem falls on the airlines, who could—and should—install seats that don’t recline. The other option would be to give travelers more room, but we know that isn’t going to happen.

So it’s up to us. Refrain from reclining your seat. Please. And if you must recline, ask permission. It’s a simple, considerate act, on the level of giving a wave when someone lets your car in front of theirs, or using proper elevator etiquette, or holding the door for someone. These small gestures help hold the fabric of society together. Without them, we fall apart. One sweaty salesmen’s head in your lap at a time.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

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