Is it rude to recline your seat on the airplane?

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When it comes to passenger etiquette on the airplane, we can probably all agree on what can be considered “egregious.”

Drape your hair over the seat behind you or peel off your socks and kick your feet up on the armrest in front of you, and you’ve earned yourself a one-way ticket to star on Passenger Shaming, an Instagram account that documents the most outrageous in-flight etiquette faux pas.

Now, here’s where we might differ in opinion: I think it’s absolutely rude, and even entitled, to lean your seat back on the airplane.

I’m in the slight minority on this, though — about four in 10 people agree with me, according to a survey conducted a few years ago by FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site.

airplane photo
Getty Images | Bruce Bennett

Here’s why I fall in the “no recline” camp. Our personal space on airplanes is increasingly becoming prime real estate, and the airlines are packing us in like sardines.

We’re reminded of just how valuable each itty-bitty inch of space is, when, at check-in, the airline prompt asks if you want to pay an extra $50 or so to upgrade to a seat with a few more inches of legroom — which can quickly be negated as soon as somebody leans back their seat.


Your seat = your space. But when you lean your seat back, you’re encroaching into the space of others as if to say, “My comfort is more important than yours.”

I’m only 5 feet, 6 inches, so I can hardly make the argument that an abrupt recline crushes my knees in the same way it does my fellow passengers who are taller.

However, I travel frequently for work (first-class is rarely ever an option) and, most often, I need to chip away at assignments while on the plane in order to keep up with deadlines.


So, I crack open my laptop, purchase in-flight Wi-Fi that ranges anywhere from $6 to $50, and, before my fingers hit the home keys, I cross them and hope the person in front of me doesn’t lean back and sabotage my productivity.

If they do lean back, it pushes my computer screen so that it’s tilted at a 60-degree angle, rather than a 90-degree angle, and I’m all of a sudden typing with T-Rex arms.

Once, as an extreme example, an abrupt recline smashed my screen shut and wedged it between the tray table and the seat and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that it survived, unscathed.

The obvious solution, of course, when somebody reclines into my space, would be to lean back my seat.


But then it continues a chain reaction, eventually squishing the folks in the back row.

Or, there’s the “Knee Defender,” a hilarious gadget that attaches to tray tables, and physically stops the person in front of you from leaning back.

They might just think their seat is broken. But, in the effort of transparency, you could print out a “Knee Defender” courtesy card that explains why you’re using it. (One of the options you can check says, “As best as I can estimate, you could recline your seat about __ inches without banging into my knees. If you would like to adjust your seat this much at some point during the flight, please let me know and I will adjust my Knee Defender so that it can be done safely.)

Can you even imagine how awkward that exchange would be? Albeit, it’s serving a purpose and Condé Nast Traveler described it this way: “As devious as it is ingenious.”

Oh, and I’ve heard of travelers using some passive-aggressive measures to make it uncomfortable for someone who has leaned back their seat. For example, they’ll rustle a newspaper near the person’s head, occasionally touching the paper to the crown of the head. Or, they’ll perhaps aim the cold air vent right at the seat-leaner’s noggin.

None of these options, er, sit well with me.

And, since I know I’m a little extreme in my opinion on this, I wanted to find out what’s fair.

So, I turned to the travel and etiquette pros who offered some much better solutions when it comes to reclining on a cramped plane.

Here’s their best advice:

  • Do a courtesy check-in: You don’t have to ask permission to recline your seat, but, it’s a nice courtesy to check with the person behind you, says Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert and founder of Manor of Manners. “You can say something similar to ‘I hope you don’t mind’ in a friendly way,” Parker suggests. “The reason we should let the people behind us know is they might have an open table, water or food and we need to be as civil as much as possible, and create a pleasant atmosphere for all of us.” And, on the topic of airplane manners, it’s nice to let the person seated in the middle use the arm rest.
  • Don’t lean back all the way: “Even though most seats allow passengers to lean back, just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” says Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant and author of “The Do’s and Don’ts of Flying: A Flight Attendant’s Guide to Airline Travel Secrets.” Care about the person behind you, and, if you must lean back, do so just a little, instead of completely, Rivers suggest.
  • Do some recognizance, and find out who is seated behind you: It’s not necessary to ask, but it is polite to check first to see who is behind you, says Michael McMillan, the general manager at Hilton Chicago O’Hare who flies about 100,000 miles a year. “If there’s a 6-foot, 4-inch guy behind you and leaning back is going to put your seat on his knees, maybe just lean back an inch,” he says. “If there’s a 4-foot-tall kid behind you, feel free to lean it all the way back, but don’t complain about being kicked once or twice.”
  • Be gentle: “Gently leaning the airplane seat back after politely advising the passenger seated behind is not rude; however doing do abruptly, without notice, and causing passenger injury or property damage is beyond rude,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert, author and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. It’s modern manners, she says, to alert the passenger in the row behind before leaning back. “If they’re wearing headphones, use body language to gain their attention,” Schweitzer suggests.

RELATED: This Helpful Visual Shows How Legroom On Most Major Airlines Stacks Up

OK, OK, given this advice, I’m going to lean back on my stance some: I’d probably be fine if the person in front of me gave me a courtesy heads-up before reclining into my space.