Recline or whine: the correct way for travellers to lean-back

As one airline cuts the recline on economy seats to avoid passenger tensions, should travellers learn the rules to reclining?

Delta airlines are reducing seat recline in order to diffuse passenger tension in the air. Courtesy Delta News Hub
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A few weeks ago I flew from Dubai to Oman. Before take-off, I spent a few moments wondering if the tall woman in the seat in front of me would recline her chair. It was a short flight and I had work to do, but if she pitched back I knew I'd struggle to use my laptop, given the lack of space in my economy seat. 

Thankfully, after a very slight dip of her seat once we were in the air, she didn't touch the recline button again and I could set up my laptop, nudge my own seat back only enough that I no longer felt like I was pitching forward – and get to work.

It is this sort of tension that Delta Air Lines hopes to resolve by reducing how far seats recline on its Airbus A320 flights. Economy seats on these flights recline only two inches, half as far as they used to.  

Delta said it was doing this to protect passengers' personal space and to allow people to work uninterrupted on laptops. It's all about reducing passenger tension, something that can easily get out of hand when reclining seats come into play.

In 2014, there was an incident on a plane between a man with a knee defender – a device that prevents people in front of you from reclining their seat – and a woman sitting in the row in front of him. She got so upset she threw a drink over him. While that is an extreme example, tension over personal space on planes is a point of contention.

Speaking to Emirates cabin crew in attendance at the Arabian Travel Market this week, the consensus was that passengers have the right to recline their seats. Ultimately, any space available to your economy seat is yours. But that doesn't mean you need to use it all.

Before we go any further into such a thorny issue, I should first admit this: my name is Hayley and I'm a recliner. There, I said it. Phew.

In my opinion, if airlines did not want you to recline your seat then they would not have recline buttons. While they still exist, I'll continue to use them. But when I do recline, I do so while keeping a few golden rules in mind.

Hayley’s guide to reclining jet-iquette:

  1. Before you recline, look at the seat behind you. If there is no one in it, claim those extra inches whenever you want to.
  2. If someone is sitting behind you, check: do they have long legs? Are they quite large? Are they pregnant? Are they elderly and, as such, will they struggle to get out of their seat if you recline? If any of the above is true, then do the right thing and use only a small amount of your reclining power.
  3. Before you pitch back, ask the person behind you if it's OK. More often than not, you'll get approval and a thanks for asking, allowing you to recline guilt-free. It also warns the person sitting behind you that they should protect their laptop/tablet/Diet Coke on the tray table before the seat in front swings back.
  4. Don't go full-tilt unless the timing is appropriate. That means only do it on longer flights and after meals have been served, eaten, cleared away and the crew have dimmed the cabin lights to encourage sleeping.

  5. Do not recline your seat at meal times – that's rude. If you're already leaning back, return slowly to the upright position. That way you won't spill any drinks balanced on the tray behind you.

If airlines really want to reduce a huge portion of tension in the air, perhaps they should just take the recline button out of operation altogether? That being said, I'm not quite sure how that would work on a 15-hour economy flight from Dubai to Sao Paulo. When I did that journey last year, the recline button became my new best friend.