Maybe you're the one on a flight who typically has your laptop out, coffee on the tray table, ready to get some work done — with your seat upright. Or maybe you're the one right in front of that person on your third flight of the journey, jet-lagged, exhausted, and needing to crash out, seat reclined. Either way, you're technically within your rights to chose the position of your preference — but other than huffing and puffing and eye rolling when someone else’s seat position imposes on your comfort, what's the right way to behave if you want to be a good neighbor in the skies?
Technically speaking, flight attendants typically only tell passengers to have their seats upright during taxi, take-off, and landing — and that's for very serious safety reasons. So, any other time, you are permitted by rules to recline your seat. Naturally, it's more complex than that in practice.
Etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning told the BBC not all flights should be considered the the same: "Skip reclining during meal service, or if the flight is short and every passenger has their laptops out and they’re trying to work. However, on a long flight where everyone is sleeping, absolutely recline.”
According to USA Today, "Crew members consistently support a passenger's right to recline the seat all the way, no matter who or what is behind it." All you can do to stop it is negotiate with the person in front of you, but be warned: "A plane is a shared space. Keep the seat upright if you can, but if you must recline, then ask before you sit back. And don't claim all the space. That's rude."
Lizzie Post from The Awesome Etiquette podcast told Travel + Leisure she "personally doesn't think you should" recline unless it's a long-haul flight and everyone is doing it. She suggests asking the person behind you if it's okay to recline. And if they say no, reply, "I totally appreciate that, and I won't [recline] the whole time, but I'm allowed to do it."
Etiquette expert Jean Broke-Smith told the BBC, unless it's a long-haul flight, it's "very rude. At the very least, you should turn around and say, 'Excuse me' first."
A few general rules to follow if your aim is to be as neighborly as possible: Tell the person behind you before you put your seat back so they can be ready for it, and also put your seat up during meal times. Flight attendants may wake you up and ask you to lift up if you're sleeping with your seat reclined and it's bothering the person behind you trying to eat.
Keep in mind, some people have ailments like back pain and need to recline to feel comfortable. You can also ask to swap seats if you're simply not in sync with your neighbor, and can't come to an agreement.
If you hate seats that recline, then you might want to stick to budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit in the U.S., or Ryanair and EasyJet abroad. You won't have someone's seat leaning back on you — but you won't get the option either!
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