Whether or not you ever should recline your airplane seat is a hot topic that has divided a lot of travelers.
I’ll get to addressing that timeless debate at some point but this article is solely about how to recline your seat politely if that is the route you have decided to take.
I’ll give you some tips on how to go about reclining your seat so that you can remain as courteous as possible and avoid issues with other passengers.
Table of Contents
Reconsider reclining when people are boarding
From time to time, I’ll catch somebody reclining before the plane is even fully boarded.
There’s really no reason to do this because you’re going to have to push your seat back up for takeoff.
But more importantly, it could just get in the way if some shuffling needs to happen behind you to fill up the seats.
And if people need to store their personal items under the seat in front of them, you’ve just presented them with another obstacle.
I guess you could argue that there is little wrong with reclining once the row behind you is seated.
However, you’re just adding on discomfort to the person behind you and doing it as soon as they are stepping foot on the plane.
Consider giving them a little bit of time to settle in and maybe hold off on reclining until you get to altitude?
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Take it nice and slow
Having a passenger in front of you recline their seat can be annoying but having them shove the seatback right into your knees, laptop, or just drop abruptly in your personal space is a different type of infraction.
It’s the type of thing that could also set somebody off.
So whenever you choose to recline your seat, just make sure that you do it very slowly.
Press down on the recline button slowly and apply pressure to the back rest slowly. Assume you will be coming into contact with the person behind you and try to give them enough time to react.
Also, whenever it is time to put your seat back up, try to raise it back up slowly as well.
Keep it up when meal service comes out
Trying to enjoy a meal in economy can be a struggle.
Utilizing silverware with your elbows tucked in is about as unnatural as it gets; any extra inch you can take advantage of is valuable real estate.
So whenever meal service comes out, you owe it to the passenger behind you to prop your seat upright.
(In fact, some airlines require seats to be in the upright position during meals.)
In First Class, you don’t have to be 100% upright because there’s so much more legroom but I would still avoid reclining all the way during meals.
Verify the person behind you is done
Before you go back to reclining, make sure that the person behind you is finished with their meal.
You could just wait an extra amount of time or you could get up and go to the lavatory and take a quick look at whether or not they have finished.
Make up your mind
One instance where a reclining seat reaches new heights of annoyance is when the person can’t make up their mind if they want to recline or not.
The constant back-and-forth can make it difficult for the passenger behind you to safely work on their laptop or keep drinks on the tray table.
Plus, it’s just really annoying.
So if you decide to recline your seat try to minimize the back-and-forth with the recline button.
Ask for permission?
A lot of people advocate for asking the person behind you for “permission” to recline.
I’m not a huge fan of this because if the person behind you says no and the person in front of you reclined their seat, you are kind of screwed unless you want to come off as a bit of a prick.
I’ve also done a lot of flying and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone turn around and explicitly ask if the person behind them is okay with them reclining.
Maybe once or twice but it is extremely rare.
My advice would be to just follow the tips in this article and that should be enough.
If you don’t want to verbally ask someone you could also just turn around, give them a quick glance as if to signal to them your intentions to recline and then do it.
This will allow you to see if your recline could be a problem and it at least gives the passenger a modicum of notice.
Choose a seat with extra legroom
One way that you can remove the pressure of reclining is to book a seat in a section with extra legroom.
If you and the passenger behind you are seated in something like Economy Plus, Premium Class, etc., you’ll be able to recline without impacting the passenger as much.
That’s because you could have something like four extra inches of legroom which can actually make a pretty huge difference.
I’d still try to limit the recline but that brings me to the next point.
Only recline “one notch”
Although the recline range in economy seats can seem negligible, sometimes there are different notches for reclining.
Typically, you can recline the seat 2 to 3 notches or “degrees.”
By choosing to not recline the full amount, you’re sending a little more respect to the passenger behind you.
Plus, it leaves you with some defense in the event the person behind you gets irritated.
“Dude, are you serious? I barely even reclined my seat.”
Be aware of broken recliners
On a First Class flight one lady once reclined her seat without realizing that it was broken. That, or she broke it whenever she reclined. I’m still not sure which one it was.
Anyway, the chair reclined like 6 inches past the normal recliner and her head was virtually in Brad’s lap.
She may not have ever flown First Class before and didn’t know but it was comical how far back she was. Basically looking right up at Brad.
So my point is to be aware that sometimes the recline feature may be broken and you could be reclining wayyyy farther than you were intended to.
If the amount of recline feels “unbelievable” and could be mistaken for a lie-flat seat, then that’s a sign that you are probably encroaching way too far on the person behind you.
Once again, the question of whether or not you should recline is a debate for another day.
But if you do choose to recline, follow the tips above and you should be able to avoid most issues with other passengers.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.