Here's When It's Acceptable to Recline Your Seat on an Airplane — and When It's Not

Here's what you should consider before hitting recline.

Airplane passenger looking out window with seat reclined in front of them
Photo: Getty Images

If you've been a frequent flyer for a few years, you've likely noticed that airline seating is starting to feel a little cramped. As TIME reported in 2019, in the early 2000s, airline seats in economy were set between 25 to 34 inches apart. However, by 2019, those seats squished closer, to 30 to 31 inches apart, and all the way down to 28 inches for short-haul planes. The seats themselves even narrowed from 18.5 inches to 17 inches.

While there is little that passengers can do about the changing layout of planes, a new question has emerged about how we respect our fellow passengers: Should you, or should you not recline your seat?

It's a conversation that has long divided the internet, with some saying of course you should be able to recline in the seat you paid for, while others call the recline an affront to flying etiquette.

"Airplane etiquette is you only recline when necessary, and if you must recline, just put the seat back a little bit to get the comfort you need without encroaching too much on the person behind you," Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, shared with The New York Times.

"Airline seats are designed to recline so it's completely reasonable that passengers use that feature of their seat. However, how you recline makes all the difference," Lisa Orr, an etiquette and protocol consultant, shared with Reader's Digest in contrast.

So what's a traveler to do? Here are a few things to consider.

Think About the Type of Flight You're On

On a short, daytime flight it may be best to abstain from reclining. That's because many passengers may be on a commuter trip and trying to get things done on their computer, meaning the tray table will be down and coffee may be flowing, making a reclining seat in front of them a potential disaster.

However, if it's an overnight flight, it's hard to argue against the right to recline. Many people will likely be attempting to catch some zzz's so they can feel rested upon arrival. A good rule of thumb is to do so early and give a warning.

" should look back before you recline to check for hot beverages or laptops," Orr added. "If there is anything that could be high risk you should turn around and let them know you're putting your seat back so they can hold on to anything that might spill."

Consider Your Timing

According to Orr, the best timing to recline may be early on in the flight so the passenger behind you knows what to expect for the flight. However, if you can, try and hold off until after the food service so the person behind you has the chance to eat their meal in as much comfort as possible.

"As people are always eating at different times during a flight this can be tricky to coordinate, but as a general rule it's nearly impossible to eat a meal while you are reclined so you should have your seat at least partially upright during a meal," Orr said.

Once meal service is over it could be OK to recline. But, as Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, previously shared with Travel Leisure, just make sure to give a heads up. "I personally like to turn around and say, 'Hey, just so you know, I'm going to adjust my seat… it's not going to be for the whole time,'" she said. "People usually respond with, 'Oh, thanks for letting me know,' or, 'Oh it's totally all right.' I've gotten their buy-in!"

Try to Avoid Conflict

Whether you're the person reclining or the person being reclined on, it's best to try to stay civil and avoid a fight at 30,000 feet.

As Post advised, "If someone shouts at you like that or says, 'I'm really sorry, but would you mind not reclining?' you could say, 'I totally appreciate that, and I won't [recline] the whole time, but I'm allowed to do it.'"

And if you're the person being reclined on, Harteveldt added that it's key to remember, "the person in the seat has the right to recline, that's the way it is. It may not be fair, but life itself is not fair."

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