It’s funny in life how the most basic questions can divide people in no uncertain terms. In fact, things can get down right hairy when you ask people about reclining airplane seats. Add in the drama of metal tube flying through the friendly skies at 33,000 feet and things can get even more interesting. Of course you can! Absolutely not, you simply can’t! If yoy do, I’ll kick your seat… the reactions are as polarizing as chocolate versus vanilla. This all begs the question: Is it okay to fully recline your economy seat in flight? Here’s the final answer.

Yes, It’s Totally Ok – With One Exception

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Anyone reclining their seat is just taking advantage of the minimally allotted space offered to each and every airline passenger. Despite the grumblings, you’re completely within your rights. If you couldn’t recline, they wouldn’t give you a button to do so, now would they? The one time it’s not ok? Meal time. For those against recline, many airline are reducing the “recline” function of seats, in favor of “pre reclined” slim line seats which save on airplane weight. While this may be music to many who hate reclining passengers, just wait till you try them out. You might just miss that forward seat mate hitting the button.

Etiquette Rules

It could be argued that the key to many of life’s mercurial questions is in execution. A courtesy turn around, direct eye contact or “do you mind if I” can go a long way to ensure a drink doesn’t spill, a laptop isn’t crunched or a hand is sandwiched. It’s also the key to avoiding mid flight fisticuffs – or at the bare minimum evil eyes. Our advice? Just golden rule it. You’re completely entitled to recline, in fact everyone should, but be graceful. Most passenger frustration around seat recline involves a spilled drink, inability to use a laptop or a loss of legroom, so just check first and become a smooth-recline-button operator. Don’t go “flying” backwards without checking for take off clearance.

Join The Party

It’s hard to think of a single activity which is hampered by reclining your own seat. You’ll enjoy a more comfortable sleep and lounge position, while simultaneously mitigating the effects of the reclined seat in front of you. The simplest solution to a reclined seat is turning around, giving the courtesy nod and pressing the recline button yourself. Just avoid meal time, or else you may not enjoy the outcome.  And if someone gives you a hard time, ask them why the airline gave you a button to do so. And before you complain about “pre reclined” seats, consider your thoughts on the subject!

Are you pro recline or anti recline? Who cares! Click here to learn how to get a whole row to yourself and sleep like business class- or click here to learn the tricks of flying economy like a travel pro.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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12 Comments

  1. Just like a small car drivers and shotgun passengers can move the seat all the way back and/or recline into the tiny seats behind you. After all YOU own the car, don’t hate the “player” hate your friend for giving you a ride. It’s just rude. Sure on a 5 hour redeye we expect some degree of recline but to slam the seat back into another persons knees, laptop, face, etc. as soon as the wheels leave the ground on that 1 hour commute flight with 28 inch pitch, not so much.

  2. Think it all comes down to the execution…
    I’ve had people recline back when I was leaning over my tray or reaching down to grab my bag under the seat in front of me and actually hit the top of my head which could have been avoided by a quick look.

    Also my issue usually becomes when I want to sit up straight but the person in front reclines… then the IFE panel doesn’t tilt up enough so I can get a straight on view of the screen.

  3. imo not even a issue worth discussion. they are there to be inclined. you NEED to beware that it could incline any time and be respectful so that you dont put your laptop/food/noggin up against it. if you do so and seatback comes down, you only blame yourself.
    cannot imagine people here are so fragile & conscious about everything.

  4. People need to understand that they are not the only person in economy.

    A recent flight from DFW to LAX on AA in economy plus I was behind someone who decided to recline right after the beverage service. Not a problem to recline but the seat and the tray table had two different ideas of how to manage this. As the passenger began to recline the tray table didn’t move so my beverage was now being crushed. Thankfully I had drank a few sips and was quick to pull the crumbling cup out without incident. I’ve never experienced this before and thankfully was able to get the cup out before I was soaked in apple juice for the remainder of the flight.

    I don’t mind it when people recline in front of me as long as I can still make it out of my row. I’ve seen where people who are a bit lager than I am struggle with walking out of their row when the people in front have reclined their seat(s).

  5. Not really, especially in long haul flights. You should only be allowed to reclain the seat of there is no one behind you. The option of reclining your seat as well does not help if you are above 190cm tall (6 feet?), more and more common among the youngsters. The option to reclain the seat is a legacy of when Economy seats were like what Premium Economy is now. You now well how the space has been reduced with the years… So please don’t recline the seat!

    1. +1. As someone who’s 6’5″ (almost 2 meters) tall, I rarely recline because I understand how horrible it is for me. The don’t blame the player stuff is pretty trite.

    2. Guillermo, you need to move to Business where the recline is (mostly) a non issue. There is no way I will let you decide whether I can recline or not, no matter what reason you may produce. I don’t care if your legs are too long for economy. I don’t care if you had too many doughnuts. Are you going to pick me up at a rock concert and hold me up, because my legs are too short and I can’t see? The only time I won’t recline is, during meal times, then I’ll give you “the nod” and then I recline as much as I see fit, usually all the way. I paid for a reclining seat, I buy tickets based on seat comfort, and if you don’t like it, buy a seat with extra leg space. Or take the train. When I can’t cope with the class of travel, I pay to upgrade, don’t be a spoiled child and do the same.

  6. I’m sorry to say this @Alex but you sound like what some people might call an “ugly American”. It;s not all about your rights. There is common courtesy needed as well.

  7. @Lady London,

    Please explain to me, how are you going to decide whether I shouldn’t use the space that I paid for with my own money or not? I do not compute. If I pay for a parking spot for my car, shall I then let you decide that I can’t use all of it, because you’re a lousy driver and you need some of my space as well? Or maybe your car is too big for your own parking spot, and you need an extra chunk? In fact, it’s you who are “ugly” by imposing a limitation on my purchased space, in order to gain more comfort for yourself. If you don’t like to have a seat reclined into your face, don’t be cheap and fly economy, pay more and travel a higher class. This website provides you with lots of tips on how to get those J or C tickets at half price – no need for knee defenders up front.

  8. No. I would not recline all the way down without the OK of the passenger sitting behind me. Even then I wouldn’t do a full recline. You are not the only one owning the space so be considerate of others. If you are causing inconvenience of others then don’t do it. Its the basic etiquette simple as that. Do you assist with the luggage of elderly? do you let the passenger sitting front of you exit the plane first? do you put on the headphone when you want to watch a movie or listen to music? We do all these things without thinking because they are the right things to do, same thing for the recline.

  9. I hate it when people recline because I can’t see the entertainment system when it’s that close so I usually spend the next 6 hours entertaining myself by kneeing the back of their seat, elbowing it when I go to the bathroom, drumming on it, etc. Go ahead, recline. You will get less rest than if you didn’t.

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