To recline or not recline, that is the question while inflight

Copyright © 2011, Aero Icarus,

On Sunday a week ago, a battle broke out in the Economy Plus section of United Airlines flight 1462, flying from Newark (EWR) to Denver (DEN). During the flight, a male passenger placed a $21.95 device (shipping not included), called a “Knee Defender,” on the seat in front of him preventing its female passenger from reclining.

The woman complained. She spoke to a flight attendant. While the FAA doesn’t have a policy about such devices, United doesn’t permit them on their aircraft. The flight attendant asked the male passenger to remove it, but he refused. According to news reports, tempers flared and the female passenger threw a cup of water at him in anger.

Apparently, to defuse the situation before it got worse, the captain diverted the flight to Chicago and deplaned both passengers before continuing to Denver. Neither was arrested.

Years ago, no problems occurred when airline passengers reclined their seats. The airlines weren’t shoehorning in as many travelers into the economy cabin as today. The distance between rows of seats in economy was more generous, allowing taller people enough room to sit comfortably, even when the seat in front of them was reclined.

In more recent times, as travelers began to choose which airline to fly based almost entirely on ticket prices, the cost of flying dropped. To make up for the lost revenue, the airlines reduced service and added more seats to economy, diminishing the distance between rows of seats, causing a two-fold problem for economy customers.

First, with less space between seats, tall passengers find when the seat in front of them is reclined, it often squeezes their legs painfully between the seats. Second, any passenger using the tray table for a meal or work can be virtually trapped by the tray table when the seat in front of them is reclined, and passengers using a laptop on the tray table behind a reclined seat can have difficulty seeing its screen well.

TU_Ad_350-350Many passengers believe when you pay for your ticket for a seat which reclines, you pay for the right to recline it, so there is no reason not to do so. Other passengers firmly believe no passenger is entitled to automatically recline their economy seat.

In the United example, my sympathies generally lie with the woman who wanted to recline her seat, though I don’t think either passenger was necessarily right.

Personally, when flying economy I depend on the seat recline. I have a bad back. When sitting fully upright in an airplane seat for much more than an hour, I’m often in agony. A small recline can alleviate that pain. Others I know can’t sleep in economy seats without reclining them, at least part way. On a long flight, especially at night, that’s important.

On the other side of the reclined seat, I believe we all should have regard for each other. Tall passengers can have their legs squeezed in economy seating when the passenger in front reclines. I’ve seen that for myself. When I’ve been behind a fully reclined economy seat, at times, on some airlines, it’s been difficult to use my tray table for eating or work. Reclining rapidly, as some passengers do, is wholly unacceptable, as it can literally break a laptop, or throw a meal in the lap of a fellow passenger.

Using a device to prevent any recline of airline seats isn’t acceptable to me either, and refusing to follow a directive of the flight crew is wrong, and may be considered illegal. I don’t believe, as some passengers do, that any passenger is entitled to the full space they have when all seats are fully upright for the entire flight.

This is what I do. To get more space for myself without squeezing the person behind me, I typically will spend for a ticket in an airline’s “plus” or “comfort” economy seat section, where the rows are further apart than in regular economy. It makes a huge difference. Better yet, when I can, I use my miles to upgrade to business or first class seats.

In economy, I don’t recline on short flights to the extent possible, and never during meal service on flights which serve them. When I do recline, I typically warn the person behind me, and then recline slowly.

It’s a compromise in economy, I know, but when in economy, we need to acknowledge we’re all in the sardine can cabin together with uncomfortable seats offering too little room. It’s a place that requires everyone to be as thoughtful and courteous as possible.

What’s your take? Was either United passenger right?

What would your rather have on airplanes? Current seats range from 28" (Spirit Airlines) to 34" (JetBlue)

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Should passengers in economy be allowed to recline their seats?

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  • Penny

    Her throwing the water in his face lost my sympathy. Both made the flight HELL for the others.

  • MarieTD

    I would like an announcement made during meal service asking passengers to set their seatbacks in an upright position so that others can eat in relative comfort.. It might help remind economy travelers that courtesy helps smooth the ride.

  • Tom 4532

    I don’t recline unless the person in front of me does so. Then I do so to get my space back. If the person behind me complains, then I tell him to complain to the person in front of me, and if the person in front goes back up, so will I.

  • Nevsky2

    What made the male passenger’s position here untenable was that he was in Economy Plus, and so did have some extra legroom. Not much sympathy for him.

  • Wayne Tutzauer

    With few exceptions, there is no reason why a passenger cannot sit upright during a 3-4 domestic flight. The airlines can easily resolve the problem by removing the recline option on the seat (like the seats in front of an exit row).

  • kittymocha

    I was wondering if the guy has ever reclined his seat. I wonder how many of these people with the knee guards were/are guilty of reclining at times? I only recline about 1/2 way but it’s my seat and I do it to relieve pressure on my back. You can do what you want with your seat you paid for but don’t tell me I can’t recline in the seat I paid for!

  • Victor Strasburger

    Here’s the basic problem: Congress or the FAA needs to mandate a minimum seat pitch (34-35″ should do it) so that people can travel in at least a modicum of comfort without throwing water at each other. The airlines aren’t going to increase seat pitch voluntarily — it’s the only solution!

  • VELS14

    Great idea Marie

  • VELS14

    May you never get older, and may you never have a back injury, or sciatica, because if you do, you’ll eat your words. You might consider having a bit of empathy for others who don’t have your perfect body.

  • VELS14

    Never going to happen, and it shouldn’t. The airlines should not have their non-safety, non-health issues decided by government policy.

  • NedLevi

    She got the edge for me because they were in Economy Plus where he had plenty of space, but he still used the unauthorized device and flatly refused to remove it when asked by the Flight Attendant.

  • NedLevi

    I agree with you Marie.

  • NedLevi

    VELS14 said it well Wayne. I hope you never have major back problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work, and it’s a common reason why air travelers want to recline their seats. I’ve found that most airline seats are shaped perfect to make lower back pain worst than it needs to be. It’s that concave shape of airline seats which puts pressure on the spinal discs and is the starting point for muscle tension and back pain, especially for those of us vulnerable to it. With the tight seat pitch found in economy it’s almost impossible, most of the time, to hiphinge forward, even when the seat is upright when you have the most room between seats. Putting a pillow behind you and reclining the seat are the most you can do, for the most part.

  • Victor Strasburger

    They absolutely should when the airlines have a monopoly and refuse to allow even decent comfort. People need to realize that some regulation is necessary.

  • LonnieC

    At the point the water was thrown, the argument became an assault. She may be sued….

  • Victor Strasburger

    Here’s what FlyersRights proposes in its Flyers Bill of Rights:

    7. The FAA shall issue minimum standards and specifications for seat width, padding, reclining, size, pitch, leg room, aisle width for passenger comfort, safety and health within 180 days of enactment, in consultation with an advisory committee to be composed of representatives from airline passenger advocacy organizations, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and including at one physician, ergonomic engineer, senior citizen, disabled air traveler, overweight person, disabled person, and at least six American air travelers representing a cross section of air travelers by age, height, weight, and gender. Until such standards are adopted, there shall be a moratorium on reductions in seat size, width, padding, pitch, and aisle width.

    Current situation: Except for aisle width to emergency exits and strength, there are no seat or passenger space regulations. Airlines are now aggressively reducing seat and passenger space on both new and existing airliners to squeeze more revenue out by adding more seats, charging extra for what had previously been standard seat space, to the point that passengers are loudly complaining and health and safety is threatened.

  • VELS14

    It may be an oligopoly, but the airlines certainly don’t have a monopoly. At many airports they are fighting for customers and are clearly working to differentiate themselves via marketing and some service differentials. The airlines are clearly not working in unison For example, not all have adopted luggage fees. That isn’t the behavior of a monopoly.

    There’s other evidence too, specifically with regard to seats. There are many seats available in many planes which have plenty of comfort for most people. The seats on the United flight in which the two who argued were sitting in are a prime example of seats with plenty of legroom and comfort. I typically purchase those seats myself to have more comfort. The thing is, you’ve got to pay for it, and that’s what the typical passenger doesn’t want to do.

    When deregulation came to the airlines, and the government was no longer setting prices and all kinds of non-safety, no-security regulations, prices dropped. With the price drop came the drop in service. If people really wanted better seats and more comfort and service, they’d pay for it, but instead most air travelers flock to the lowest cost airline seat possible when there are alternatives, and then complain bitterly how bad their seat is. To me they lost the argument when they chose their seat strictly on price.

    This isn’t an area, in my opinion, which the government should be regulating. If enough people show, by spending and from the airline’s focus groups and polling, that more people are willing to pay somewhat more for more comfortable seating, you’ll see sections like United’s Economy Plus getting larger.

    There is a place for government regulation in this country, but not here.

  • VELS14

    And will the FAA be issuing coincidental regulations standardizing the minimum ticket cost once the number of seats on planes is substantially reduced so that the airlines can recoup the lost revenue due to the forced reduction in the number of passengers carried on each flight? Or are the airlines to be forced back to the days when they lost great gobs of cash, where many went into bankruptcy, last time by their own actions, but this time due to government regulation?

    By the way, I’m not familiar with that plank in the Passenger Bill of Rights as proposed by Here is the current PBR as found at:

    Proposed Bill of Rights for Airline Passengers:

    • Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
    • Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
    • Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
    • Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
    • Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
    • Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
    • Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price
    • The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
    • Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
    • Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
    • Require that these rights apply equally to all airlines code-share partners, including international partners.

  • StephenD

    Plain and simple … my ticket, my cost, my seat. If the person behind me does not like their space limited from my recline then they need to get an upgrade to business class or reserve a seat in coach where the row in front of them (exit row) does NOT recline. Additionally, if I recline my seat then the person behind me has the option to recline their seat to regain the “lost” space. I am a two-million miler on Delta and I wrote them to ask what their policy was regarding seat recline. Their response, “We completely understand your concerns. Please know the use of a Knee Defender is not allowed on our flights as it interferes with the operation of the aircraft’s equipment.” If the flight attendant instructed to the passenger that the device could not be used and the passenger refused to listen to the flight attendant’s instructions then that matter should be resolved by the flight attendant and the airline. If someone blocked me from reclining illegally, I would raise hell with the airlines and the FAA.

  • Lisa Simeone

    In my experience, they do. Plenty of people, however, still ignore it.

  • RNE

    What is meal service? ;)