Should airline seats recline?

Some of you may have read about the spectacular rage that jewelry designer Jenny Lauren flew into on a plane that resulted in her chasing the poor flight attendant into the first class cabin, screaming obscenities, and assaulting not only her but others who came to her assistance. The niece of Ralph Lauren caused such a ruckus that they had to actually divert the plane, which was on transatlantic flight between Barcelona and New York, and make an emergency landing in Ireland, where she was dutifully arrested and charged.

The cause of her outrage? Her seat would not recline. Undoubtedly adding to the problem was that she was apparently intoxicated but the seat issue is what triggered the furious outburst.

I am not surprised. Reclining airplane seats are becoming an increasing source of aggravation on planes. Airlines are squeezing more and more people into smaller spaces and the issue of reclining seats is going to be an increasingly significant problem because it tends to add to the discomfort of the person behind. There have been fights between passengers over this issue and I expect to see them more frequently.

There are calls for this feature to be eliminated entirely because the added comfort it gives to the person reclining is more than counterbalanced by the discomfort produced by the person in front reclining their seat, so there is a net loss. Some polls put the figure is support of a ban as high as 90%.

The results showed that, if reclining seats were an option, 70 per cent of passengers admitted to being selfish and said they would recline while sitting in front of a pregnant woman. Another 80 per cent said they wouldn’t care if the person behind was frail or elderly.

The most likely passengers to be “altruistic souls” – those you should ideally aim to sit behind – were women aged between 18 and 24. Men over the age of 35 were the most selfish.

I myself would be perfectly fine with not having reclining seats. The amount they recline is hardly worth it. Meanwhile here is an etiquette guide on this issue. Maybe they should put something like that in the seat pockets.


  1. badgersdaughter says

    Sorry, the answer to the airlines creating increasing discomfort, frustration, and distress to their passengers is not to allow them to take steps to create even more discomfort, frustration, and distress.

  2. says

    How about a minimum distance between seats, and a minimum seat width? Surely it’s a health and safety issue.

    I’ve got long legs and have had my knees crushed by the seatback in front of me (“sudden reclining syndrome”) and I have been known to tell my fellow passengers that I’ll stop kicking the seatback when they stop crushing my knees.

  3. Sunday Afternoon says

    Agreeing with badgersdaughter, if anything, there should be a push to improve the minimum space available in an economy airline seat.

    The ANA Boeing 787 that I flew on last year between Silicon Valley and Tokyo Narita did not have reclining seats. Instead, the seat cushion slides forward. I had huge concerns that this would be uncomfortable given that I am 6’4″ (1.92m) tall. Fortunately ANA has reasonable seat pitch so the flights weren’t too uncomfortable.

    For other long haul flights, I am fortunate that I can afford to pay the height-tax to get longer economy legroom (Virgin Atlantic, for example, offers seats with this option).

  4. says

    This from your linked etiquette page is right on the mark:

    Look Before You Lie Back
    A glance behind you does three things:
    1. Lets you make sure you’re not going to break anyone’s nose or kneecaps
    2. Gives some warning that the seat is on its way
    3. Lets you find out exactly who is behind you; if the person back there is 6’9″ and all legs, you might show some mercy.

    I’m 2m (6.6″), so on some tight flights it’s quite impossible for the person in front of me to recline, unless they break my leg bones (when they try, I generally lean forward to let them know that reclining isn’t an option).

    I’d favor doing away with reclining seats for shorter flights (which generally use planes with less legroom as well).

    I have no problem with reclining on long overnight flights; generally there’s enough room on the larger planes to get my legs under the reclined seat in front of me if I’m lying back myself.

  5. Wylann says

    There is currently a mnimum seat distance (seat pitch). The regulations (14 CFR §121.310) call for 30 inch minimum, but operators can (and almost all do) for an exemption to allow for up to one inch of deviation, so the effective seat pitch minimum is 29 inches.

    I was fortunate enough to work for a large European airline, and always flew first/business class on transatlantic flights. Those seats were nearly fully berthable (convert into beds), but if they did that for the whole aircraft, ticket prices would go through the roof (think ~10x as much to fly, minimum). There should be a compromise, and I think the regs should be re-written to make the minimums different for longer routes to allow for different reclining seats, but that will never likely happen because of the expense associated with all those changes.

  6. wtfwhateverd00d says

    There are seats that airlines put in that are up against a bulkhead and can’t recline. Regardless, in my experience the airline doesn’t give those passengers any extra legroom.

    If it was a seat like that, Lauren was speaking/shouting/acting like an asshole for 100,000,000 passengers.

    Which is not to accept as reasonable her bitchy entitled behavior, but does help us understand her frustration.

  7. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I would like to know why she was fined — other folks seem to get arrested in airplanes for a lot less.

  8. PauloOne says

    Since due to my work I’m required to travel quite frequently I notice that most of the rules are adopted.
    On short to medium time flights, it’s not considered polite to back your seat, anyone can manage to still normally on plane for 2 to 4 hours.
    When it comes to long flights, my most common flights,it really helps a lot to lean back and relax.
    Also on the companies that I normally travel with, the seat arrangement varies according to the flight length, the longer the flight the more spaced are the seats, I’m the kind of people that notices, being 1.96 mt tall, each centimeter matters.

  9. says

    I agree with Physicalist, it’s not needed on shorter flights. Unless it’s trans-ocean or another lengthy trip, why have it? It’s only on long flights that it’s needed, and those behind reclined seats will be just as likely to incline themselves.

    It’s not just airplanes, it’s on buses and trains as well. But at least on a plane, the flight attendants will tell passengers to return to an upright position for landing.

    I’ve lost count of the number of cretins on trains and buses who leave the seat reclined as they leave. The people behind that seat can’t reach the button to fix it, and are often pinned in, unable to get out. It’s happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others.

  10. Wylann says

    Keep in mind that many of the regulations regarding seating and aircraft interiors haven’t been updated since the ’60s. (For instance, the standard passenger weight used for analysis/testing of seats is 170 lb. How often is the average net weight of passengers in any row of seats 170 lb or less?….)

  11. Richard Simons says

    I’m another person who would be happy with non-reclining seats – I always anticipate getting my knees nearly crushed or my drink being knocked over. Incidentally, on my first flight (9 hours, Manchester to Vancouver) the seat was broken and would not go into the upright position – a most uncomfortable journey.

  12. Doug Little says

    Marcus Ranum,

    I have been known to tell my fellow passengers that I’ll stop kicking the seatback when they stop crushing my knees.

    I’m tall as well so what I do is wedge my knees into the seat back when someone goes to recline so they can’t. It’s funny when they keep trying to recline but can’t, eventually they give up and don’t bother to try again. I assume that they just think its probably something wrong with the seat.

    Also, what the hell was this person doing in coach to begin with she is the Niece of Ralph Lauren for Christ sake.

  13. says

    One reason I invariably take advantage of the seat-the-disabled-first policy, that my pain load on even a short flight would be ruinously high if I didn’t take care to sit in a front row, a seat behind a bulkhead. Being forced to keep my legs in a particular spot for more than ten minutes or so is just unimaginably painful, and though I’m only 175cm, it doesn’t take very much tall to make a <75cm seat pitch very, very confining.

    In the end, if's not generally a deal anyway, as I never have the money to fly anywhere.

  14. filethirteen says

    Once on a flight the seat I was in was broken so it reclined whenever I sat in it. An attendant came by three times to tell me to put it up because the plane was about to land, and left every time before I could explain. On the forth occasion she got really shirty with me but that time I was able to show her, although afterwards she still seemed to think it was somehow my fault.

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