It is an active struggle to live in harmony on an airplane. It’s amazing that more conflict doesn’t ensue when you smash a dozen to a couple hundred people into a confined space with conflicting cultural norms, minimal elbow room and limited bathroom availability.
One of the touchiest subjects in all of air travel is the seat recline. To some, leaning your seat back on a flight is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you take that precious spare space for relief? For others, the sight of the seat in front barreling toward them is a living nightmare. Not only would they never recline — they think the practice is rude.
Chaos can erupt when opinions clash over the recline feature. In 2020, a passenger on a flight from New Orleans to Charlotte repeatedly punched and nudged the seat of a woman in front of him after she reclined. Another passenger filmed the incident.
In 2014, a United Airlines flight was rerouted when two passengers got into an altercation over seat reclining and the use of the Knee Defender, a device that prevents the person in front of you from reclining. A week later, a Frenchman had a recline-related meltdown on a flight from Paris to Miami, causing yet another reroute. And because good things come in threes, a third incident went down just days after that, when a woman on a Delta flight had her head bonked by a seat reclining in front of her. Screaming ensued, and the plane was rerouted.
Do these travelers have a case? When, if ever, is it okay to hit that recline button on a flight? Here are some considerations.
Recline: When You’re Sitting in Front of a Child
Children and babies on flights get a bad reputation for being rambunctious, but at least they’re small. Relative to their body size, the airplane seat they get is a lot bigger than yours. Reclining into a child’s territory does put you at risk of getting your seat back trampled by a pair of baby Crocs, but that’s a risk you might be willing to take.
Don’t Recline: When the Person Behind You Is Tall
Take a peek at the person sitting behind you. Are they clocking in under 6 feet? You’re good to recline. But if you look back and the passenger appears to be a starting center for the New York Knicks, take your finger off of that recline button. Airlines these days offer economy passengers roughly 31 to 38 inches of legroom (or “seat pitch”) on long-haul flights. Think of the perils of being in coach when you’re 6-2 with legs some 40 inches long.
Recline: When You’re on a Long-Haul
Planes aren’t designed to be the most comfortable places to rest but, rather, to get you from Point A to Point B. It takes a lot out of a person to sit on a plane for extended periods of time. In cases where you’re trapped for several hours, a couple inches of recline can provide absolutely crucial relief.
“I think reclining seats are necessary to surviving long-haul flights in economy,” says Jessica Nabongo, an American travel writer on track to be the first black woman to visit every country on Earth. “For me, there is absolutely no possibility of my sitting upright in economy for eight-plus hours.”
If taking those two to four inches of lean takes the edge off the backbreaking agony of a long-haul trapped in coach, go forth and recline.
Don’t Recline: When Food Is Being Served and Eaten
With the exception of Super Bowl Sunday, when you’re free to kick back in a La-Z-Boy recliner and nosh on wings, we generally sit upright when eating food. While having the seat reclined on a plane may offer you some comfort, don’t keep it that way when it’s time for your flight’s meal service. That’ll mean a cramped dining experience for the passenger behind you.
If you’re already reclined, do your fellow travelers a courtesy and at least (slowly) pop back up when a meal is served.
Recline: When You’re Taking a Red-Eye
Most people book a late-night flight with the intention of sleeping on the plane. The whole plane goes dark, and passengers are expected to at least try to get some shut-eye. You’re good to recline here.
Washington Post illustration; iStock. FTWP/FTWP.
When it’s 3 a.m. and the lights are off, there’s less chance of disrupting the person behind you. Chances are, they’re probably trying to snooze, as well. But remember that it’s still good form to look back before you lean, just in case.
Don’t Recline: When You’re Going to Sit up Straight Anyway
For sweet goodness’ sake, do not recline your seat if you’re not taking advantage of those precious and controversial inches. The person behind you is getting less room and comfort because of your action. Not sitting back on your reclined seat is a cruel and unusual thing to do. Don’t be cruel and unusual.
Recline: If the Person in Front of You Has Reclined
A passenger in the front of the plane can trigger a chain reaction and cause a succession of leaning, all the way to the back. Even though you were taught growing up that you shouldn’t do something just because everyone else is doing it, we’re telling you the opposite. There seems to be an unsavory general consensus that if the person in front of you is reclining, you’re entitled to, too. When the dominoes start to fall, give in.
Don’t Recline: When You Hear the Person Behind You Beg for Mercy
Flying isn’t easy for everyone. Whether tall, claustrophobic, anxious or just in the middle of a terrible day, it can become a gruesome endeavor. If you go to recline and someone asks you not to, reconsider. Sure, it’s technically within your right to do so — why would the function be there in the first place if not to use it?
But take the high road and collect some traveler karma instead.
Ultimately, flier discretion is advised. Assess individual situations, use your best judgment, and recline or remain upright accordingly. Are there other hypothetical situations for reclining we should consider? Sound off in the comment section or tweet them to me at @natbco — we may update with a ruling.
Natalie Compton is a staff writer for the Washington Post's new travel destination, By The Way.