Reclining Airline Seats and You

Reclining Airline Seats
Reclining Airline Seats

Passengers flying economy are faced with smaller seats with less space between seats (called seat pitch). In this cabin environment, reclining airline seats significantly can greatly reduce the space for the passenger sitting behind the reclining passenger.  A survey of international flight attendants indicated that over 60% had been involved in, or witness to, an argument between passengers on the subject of reclined seats. Is the end near for reclining airline seats?

Opinions on Seat Reclining

There are passengers that are pro- and anti-seat reclining. For the pro-reclining passengers, the rationale is fairly simple: the airlines offer reclining seats and anyone can choose to recline or not to recline as desired. In addition, particularly on longer flights, some passengers indicate that a reclining airline seat is the difference between being able to sleep and staying awake.

The anti-reclining passengers point out that the ability to recline should not outweigh the fact that the airlines have significantly reduced the pitch between seats, especially in the economy section. In addition, for taller passengers and/or passengers working on laptops, they have a right to be comfortable which is not guaranteed by also electing to recline their seats.

Some passengers have even paid passengers not to recline or requested payment not to recline.

Strangling for Reclining an Airline Seat

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a male passenger tried to strangle the woman sitting in front of him who had reclined her seat. After other passengers restrained the male passenger, the flight returned to LAX. Although this was a particularly outrageous example of passenger upset over lack of space, it is not uncommon for passengers to be upset over the impact of seat reclining.

Knee Defenders Come and Go

The Knee Defender, a device that attaches to a passengers tray table to prevent the seat to which it is attached from reclining, was introduced in 2003. The Knee Defender’s inventor, Ira Goldman, was a 6’3″ traveler who was frustrated at the lack of legroom he faced when passengers would recline in front of him. In August 2014, the Knee Defender hit the headlines when two passengers on a United flight fought over the use of the Knee Defender, which caused the flight to be diverted. In addition, two other flights were diverted over similar legroom squabbles only days later

Most major U.S. airlines and many international carriers have banned the knee defender. A major reason for the ban is that the Knee Defender can damage the flight tray if passengers tries to forcibly recline their seat while the Knee Defender is being used.  The FAA has not banned the use of the Knee Defender and has specifically indicated that its use does not violate FAA regulations.

Some Airlines Eliminate Reclining Seats

Allegiant Air became the first U.S. airline to eliminate reclining seats in 2006. Spirit Airlines eliminated reclining seats in 2009. There are three benefits to airlines moving to stationary seats. First, stationary seats are simpler to construct and less likely to break. Second, stationary seats are lighter than reclining seats, which reduces fuel costs. Third, with reduced seat pitch, stationary seats provide a consistent amount of space for all passengers.

Passenger Surveys On Reclining Seats

A 2013 study by Skyscanner of over 1,000 passengers indicated that many were in favor of reducing the usage of reclining seats. 91% of people who took part in the survey said short-haul flights should either ban or set times for seat reclining. The survey also found that of over 1,000 passengers surveyed, 43% even felt that long-haul flights should implement set times when passengers are permitted to recline their seat. Almost a third of those surveyed said a reclined seat had caused them discomfort, and 3% revealed they had been injured by a reclining seat.

Seat Reclining Etiquette

An etiquette expert provides a number of suggestions for passengers who are considering whether or not to recline. First, before reclining, ask the passenger sitting behind you whether or not he/she minds if you recline. Second, if sitting in front of tall passengers, then do not recline your seat. Third, if the passenger behind you has opened his/her tray table, then do not recline your seat.


Cramped cabins can be a stressful place for both passengers as well as the flight crew. Making use of a seat’s reclining mechanism, which historically has been considered a perfectly acceptable behavior, is more questionable now when passengers are provided with reduced seat pitch. Whether or not the passenger sitting in front of you is going to recline becomes yet another variable that may impact a passenger’s travel experience. For passengers with longer legs or passengers hoping to work on a laptop in-flight, Seateroo may provide a useful tool to enable passengers relocate to a seat behind a non-reclining passenger. In addition, Seateroo can help reduce the amount of time spent by flight attendants reacting to passenger complaints over seat reclining.


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