Is it Ever Okay to Recline on a Plane?

Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, author, and co-host of The Awesome Etiquette Podcast, has agreed to weigh in on a few travel etiquette questions from a politesse perspective. We've already covered the knees-on-the-seat phenomenon. (Verdict: "Not OK!") Now we're on to reclining your seat during a flight. Is it impolite to do so, or is totally fine?

Reclined Airplane Seat
Photo: Getty Images/Hero Images

To recline or not to recline? For some folks, it's not a question: They'll recline as much as they want, dammit! For others—particularly the six-feet-tall-and-over-set, it's a direct affront. (There's a reason the Knee Defender became a thing—and a controversial thing, at that.) So what does our politesse professional say?

Should an airplane passenger be allowed to fully recline his or her seat?

Currently the seat you purchased has the ability to fully recline; when you purchase that seat, you can fully recline it. I personally don't think you should. When it comes to the [theory] of the situation, yes you can; when it comes to the reality of the situation, avoid it at all cost.

So you never recline on flights?

I know that I can get through a four-hour flight without reclining. Often times I'll recline just two inches. It does give my back a little bit of a change of angle that helps. If it's an overnight flight where you're going to sleep, I think it does help people. It's just like at a concert when one person can stand everybody stands; one person puts his seat back, then everyone does.

Why shouldn't people recline during shorter flights?

This is a personal feeling; I personally think when I get on to a flight and I'm thinking about what a small space this is…I know my back's OK and I don't need to recline my seat—even though it's included in the fee. [If] you have a back problem, if it makes your back feel better, my advice to you as an etiquette expert is not to do it the whole flight. These are close quarters. Sure, I might have the ability and I might have paid for a seat that functions this way, but do I need to be comfortable the whole time?

Should people give others a heads-up before reclining?

It's considerate to it; you don't have to do it by any means. … It's kind of how I operate on airlines. 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." People usually respond with, "Oh, thanks for letting me know," or, "Oh it's totally all right." I've gotten their buy-in!

If someone says, "Don't even think about it!" if you start to recline, how to respond?

This is where—if you've got someone who's really angry …if I tell you to respond, it could make things worse. I almost can't answer. 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."

What if the seat behind you is empty?

It's not an issue. Recline all you want. I always try when I'm selecting my seat to find seats that have no one behind them.

How should extra-tall people handle politely asking someone not to recline?

"I'm really sorry, but I'm 6'7" and it would be really wonderful if at some point you could put your seat up for a little bit to give me a little bit of extra space." It's that gentle, "I'm trying to be reasonable here" [attitude that helps].

What aspect of etiquette dictates this?

Your seat belongs to you but the space that you're going into infringes—impedes—affects the person behind you. And that's what you need to take into consideration; you're sharing that space.

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