Should the airlines eliminate seats that recline?

737-900ER with New Boeing Sky Interior, photo courtesy of Boeing

We’ve all had it happen at one time or another while flying…

The moment the announcement, electronic devices may be used, the passenger in front of you rockets his seat to be fully reclined in less than a blink of an eye, almost breaking your knees in half. The moment you’re served hot coffee on your seat tray, the sudden recline of the seat in front knocks that coffee all over you. The moment you open your laptop or tablet on your seat tray, the abrupt recline of the seat in front, literally throws the device into your chest, with no room to use it anymore.

Should the airlines eliminate seat reclines to prevent occurrences like those from happening?

To find out, let’s first take a look at why passengers recline their seats.

For many passengers, prolonged time in an airplane seat in its “upright position” can be truly painful.

According to work completed by the Cornell University Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group (CHFERG), directed by Professor Alan Hedge,

“An estimated 50 percent of people in the industrialized world suffer some form of back complaint, and many of these are related to poor seat design. How we sit and what we sit on affects the health of the spine.”

A survey by CHFERG found the preferred seat back angle for comfort is 15º, not the angle of a standard airplane seat’s “upright position,” required for passengers during takeoff and landing for safety considerations. Even when fully reclined, few economy seats can be set at 15º. Southwest Airlines, for example, has reduced their seat recline to just two instead of three inches on their new 737 interior, permitting a seat angle considerably less than 15º.

No wonder so many passengers complain about sitting in an economy seat for hours. Personally, I have a surgically repaired bad back, and find sitting in the “upright position” for very long extremely painful.

Many flights, even US domestic flights, have a duration of three hours or longer. US transcontinental flights, according to the direction of the flight, can last from about 5 to 6 hours. Most international flights last even longer. Many passengers prefer to sleep during these flights, especially the “red eyes.” Sitting in the “upright position” makes it extremely difficult for most passengers to sleep.

Frankly, a reclined seat is more comfortable for reading, watching a movie, or most anything a normal person would do on an airplane, except perhaps for eating. The work of experts, such as those found at CHRERG, confirms that.

Why do many passengers dislike the seat in front of them reclined, with some passengers doing whatever they can to prevent that recline?

A reclined seat in front of taller passengers, those approaching six feet or taller, whose knees are above the seat surface, presses the back of the seat in front of them right into their knees. That really hurts.

If you’re a laptop or tablet user, when the seat in front is reclined, your use of the tray table can be significantly diminished. Often the screen can’t be placed at a reasonable angle to view it, and the laptop’s keyboard may have to be moved so far toward you that you can’t comfortably type for more than a few minutes. It’s also difficult to use the tray table for having a meal when the seat in front is reclined.

Of those fliers surveyed by Skyscanner, 91 percent said on short-haul flights the airlines should either ban or set times for seat reclining. Even for long haul flights, 43 percent of surveyed fliers felt there should be set times when passengers are permitted to recline their seat.

I’ve heard some fliers exclaim that reclining one’s seat is rude because it’s essentially saying the recliner’s comfort is more important than the person behind them. I don’t find the statement valid, as it’s not less true that those who are against anyone reclining are stating their comfort is more important than the person in front of them.

So, what’s the solution?

The airlines have created the problem of seat recline by cramming as many seats in their planes as possible, and that’s unlikely to change. If the airlines install the newly available thinner seats, that can mitigate the problem, unless they use their installation to add even more seats into their airplane cabins.

I don’t favor eliminating airplane seat recline. I think there are too many valid reasons in favor of allowing airplane seats to recline, but I believe passengers who recline their seats must act reasonably.

• Never rocket your seat back quickly. Always recline your seat slowly and move it the minimum amount you need to be comfortable.

• Don’t recline your seat during meals.

• Take a peek behind you before reclining your seat. If the passenger behind you is tall, let them know you understand their situation, and minimize the amount you recline your seat. If the passenger is using a tablet or laptop, let them know you intend to recline your seat, but will be careful when moving it and will minimize the amount of the recline.

Both the passenger in front, and behind, need to be courteous and considerate.

  • Ton

    al perfectly valid as a member of the avg tallest nation (the dutch) sitting in a standard seat is irritating for short haul, tiring long haul, having somebody turn that little space even more into a wedge is not something i enjoy

    the thing is not just about cramming its also about selling premium seating, to be honest i have on occasion paid for that rather than suffer

  • dcta

    It’s interesting to me that this piece turned into an “air travel etiquette” piece! Since we’re verging on etiquette:

    Please don’t wear perfume (or any scented lotions) when flying – and I say “any” here because there are people who believe they put on a perfectly unobtrusive amount of perfume who actually douse themselves and have no idea! Regardless, so many people have allergies and the air in the plane is “recirculated” so there is no escape!

    Please don’t sneeze into the air! Cover your face with a tissue and PLEASE don’t wipe your hands all over the seat arms!

    Please remember that your seat mate also bought a ticket and gets to use that the armrest between you as well!

  • NedLevi

    Ton, thanks for your readership.

    I certainly agree that sitting in a standard economy seat even on a short haul flight can be irritating, and on a long flight, very tiring. I’m not a tall person, and it still effects me that way.

    I really don’t think the airlines are jamming in the seats in economy to sell more premium seating, or preferred seating. In the US at least, and I think it’s really the same in Europe and elsewhere, in my opinion, the airlines have rightly concluded, despite the constant complaints about lack of service, and all the fees charged these days, most air passengers choose their airline and flights strictly on price. The more seats the airlines can jam into the plane, the more seats they can spread their costs on, and the lower they can set their fare and make a profit. Filling the plane with bodies is what they need, along with selling as many of the very high price First/Business Class seats they can, which help make the low cost of economy tickets possible.

    Personally, I rather pay more and get some comfort and service. For flights longer than 2½-3 hours, I always try to upgrade, or if the costs aren’t too horrible, pay to go First or Business Class. I have some status on my most used airlines, and fortunately can get exit row seating on them which does get me the extra legroom, and a more open space feeling than the typical cramped economy seats.

    I think the premium seats, and to a far lessor extent preferred seating was developed to a few capture extra dollars from passengers who are willing to pay a fairly significant fee for a not so big upgrade in seating. In the case of preferred seating, there’s no extra room. You only get closer to the front for earlier boarding (carry-on space availability in the overhead bin) and a quicker exit at the destination.

    Take for example United’s premium seating. I chose to fly on United in its premium seating on a long 11.5 flight because the miles’ upgrades still available on the flight were too costly, business class upgrades weren’t available, and the cost of business class seats were astronomical.

    For 11.5 hours I was willing to pay the approximately $275 extra per seat, but the only things you get are seating right behind business, so you’re assured of carry-on space in the overhead bin, and a quicker getaway out of the plane at your destination, (essentially meaningless) and enough extra legroom that if the person in front of you reclines for the entire flight, you really don’t care. The extra legroom did make a real difference on that long flight. The seat size, food, entertainment, power outlets, and fees are all the same as regular economy seating.

    In fact, if you’re not careful, some of the premium economy seats aren’t so premium, On the United 777, for example, the plane I last flew in premium seating, some of the 45 premium economy passengers were very unhappy. While 2 seats had no one sitting in front of them, they actually had little extra legroom due to the bulkhead in front of them. Then there were the 11 seats in premium economy with limited seat recline because they were in the exit rows. By the way, that’s 29% of the premium seating on that particular plane.

    Before choosing my seats, I always check them out on

    While First, Business, and Premium Economy are options for some, and make a real difference, most passengers are in the cattle car section known as Economy. I’m hoping the airlines use the new thinner seats to mitigate knee knocking and laptop/tablet flight, rather than jamming in an extra row of seats, which is enabled. Regardless, in Economy, consideration of fellow passengers and courteous behavior toward them is essential if all are to have a reasonably decent flight.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership DCTA.

    I’m with you on your air travel etiquette essentials.

    I’d like to add a few essentials of my own.

    Take a shower and use deodorant before a flight. Leave the armrest down. Don’t bring aboard food with strong odors such as onions and garlic. Keep the volume down on your earphones. If someone doesn’t want to talk with you. leave them alone.

    As I was writing the piece, I was somewhat surprised where it went myself. As I was looking at both sides of the the problem of seat recline I was trying to figure out if, in fact, there was a solution. I’ve concluded that the only actual solution would be more seat pitch (space from the front of the seat in one row to the front of the seat in the next row, for people unfamiliar with the term).

    Short of that, with both recliners and anti-recliners having valid points, and with the “upright position” of airplane seats being quite uncomfortable for all but the shortest of flights, it would seem the only “solution” for now is to get along with each other when flying.

  • dcta

    Actually, I like the seats in AF’s Premium Economy (Or Economy Plus – can’t keep track of the names) – the seats “recline” but they are in a “shell” that does not move. It’s only the seat that slides into a reclining position while the back can not be reclined into the person behind you. I KNOW this can be done in regular coach seats!

  • John

    from a guest: John
    I do not agree with the statement that a passenger sitting behind another passenger who reclines a seat should should then believe that his/her space has been invaded. As long as seats can recline there is no ownership of the space used in reclining either in front or behind a seat. The occupier of the seat has a choice of either to recline or not recline. Just like there is no ownership of a common armrest between seats .

  • Ton

    i agree as you say the complaints about legroom have resulted in premium products (which can indeed be totally different, see the virgin international as an example)
    if airlines made it easier to pick classes per leg than it would be easier. For example earlier this year i flew from rotterdam to ny via london, BA allowed me to choose the cabin per leg (and find out that while premium was expensive for what you get, business was actually value for money (and get use of the lounge on the way back, nothing better than a normal breakfast plus a good shower to get you over the usa to europe jetlag

  • NedLevi

    I’ve been in the shell based seats that Air France is currently using on their “intercontinental” flights. The back of the seat is fixed, and the seat reclines by moving the seat bottom forward with its back moving with it. These seats require considerably more space than the standard economy seats according to AF, Boeing and Airbus.

    In the AF planes (long haul) which have these seats the difference between seat pitch in economy (32″) and premium economy (38″) is 6″ or almost 19% more, which is highly significant. In my opinion, this option would not be possible to implement in economy, without removing a significant amount of seating.

    I went to the specs of an AF A321, which uses the same seats in premium economy and economy. The difference is in premium economy the food is better. I wanted to see what would happen if I implemented the AF intercontinental premium economy seat on the A321 throughout the economy and premium economy cabin, to see if it’s a possible solution for seat recline.

    Currently the AF A321 has 26 rows in the combined premium economy and economy cabins. The seat pitch is 32″ for all these seats. If we change them all to 38″ for the sake of this example, AF will loose about 1 row out from every 6 rows for the best scenario for AF, so they will loose about 4 rows, possibly 5, but we’ll call it 4 rows, or 24 seats. I don’t see that working financially.

    If the shell based seats are put closer together, for example, at a pitch of only 35″, the recline will be significantly diminished by 50%, which won’t work well, at best, for most passengers, and AF would still loose at least 12 seats minimally from the cabin. That’s a lot of revenue.

    I just don’t think the shell seats are a general solution for economy seating, unless passengers are prepared to pay much more to fly in economy.

  • dcta

    Somewhere in the past 20 years, I’ve been in a coach seat that works like this, but I can’t remember on what carrier – either a European or African one.

  • NedLevi

    Ton, I fly business class internationally whenever I can, and first class in the US (no BC in the states) for flights longer than 2½, both generally via upgrades. To me it’s worth it. Others disagree, but it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

  • NedLevi

    John, thanks for your readership. By the way, I never used the term “invaded” in my column today, nor has any of the commentors here.

    Whether it’s “their” space or not, when the passenger in front reclines, the passenger behind the seat is loosing space, and it especially affects tall people as the seat back goes right into their knees. It also reduces the usable space on the tray table behind the seat. That’s why many air travelers are calling for seat recline to be eliminated.

    Sure, the seat’s occupant gets to decide whether or not to recline, but if they do recline, they can be in for consequences they may not like, or be prepared to deal with.

    Years ago, seat recline wasn’t a particular problem as the seats were several inches further apart, and tray tables were designed differently. That made a big difference. Today, with the seats in economy being so close together there is a problem for many, and there needs some kind of a solution or the loud arguments, people using devices to block reclining seats from reclining, and in some cases physical confrontation will get worse than they already are.

  • NedLevi

    I would really appreciate it if you would contact me if you figure it out. Just drop me an email.

    I’d love to take a look at the example and talk with the airlines about it. This is an issue which isn’t going away, but if it did, would really enhance flying for many.

  • AXW

    It seems to me this problem has already been solved – at least by United. My last few flights with them (seemed) to feature seats that, instead of flopping back, had the lower portion of the seat slide forward. This allows a recline and detracts from the passenger’s leg room instead of the legroom of the person behind. Take your choice: recline, or less leg room for yourself. S
    eems ideal. Or am I delusional? Did this feature really exist? Should it?

  • AXW

    Correction: I meant MORE legroom for legroom for yourself

  • pauletteb

    “I don’t find the statement valid, as it’s not less true that those who are against anyone reclining are stating their comfort is more important than the person in front of them.”
    Your statement’s not exactly valid either, the primary difference being that the reclined seat effectively takes space away from the person sitting behind.

  • wiseword

    I’m perfectly comfortable sitting up or lying down, but reclining is like being halfway suspended in space. And who can read when holding a book half-way in the air?

  • Curious

    Or curry, tex mex, cayenne, peppers, hot sauce. This world is allergy crazy, but these, in particular, can put some people into severe asthma attacks. We can prevent ourselves from going into restaurants serving these items, but, we are trapped in a steel tube with recycled air.

  • neal1

    Get rid of the reclining. Being 6 foot and knees already in the back of the seat in front of me. If cramming, no reclining unless in Premium Economy, Comfort Plus or what ever they are calling it. Pay for more leg room, you get to recline.

  • neal1

    John, so if I’m tall and you reclined and are crushing my knees, it’s my problem and I should deal with it? I guess than if I need to move about in my seat and it keeps knocking yours, not my problem either. Especially if I keep opening and closing my tray that’s connected to your seat. I guess if the tray is there, I should open and close frequently, because they put it there.

  • NedLevi

    Neal, thanks for your comment, and your readership. Playing devil’s advocate here, I’m wondering if you think that getting rid of reclining is fair to others who benefit from it? It looks as though you want to send those who wish to recline to the more expensive sections of the plane at their expense, allowing you to spend less. Could it not be fair that in order to have more room for your larger size that you should purchase the more expensive seat which gives you more room?

    The question I think is which way is the most fair. I’ve come to the personal conclusion the answer is neither position has more validity than the other.

    You said, “Pay for more leg room, you get to recline.” Ok, how about larger people paying for more leg room?

    Just an alternative thought.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership WW. You have an interesting take, and far different than the average person who according to surveys and studies is most comfortable in a somewhat reclined angle of 15 degrees.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership Pauletteb. Looking at the issue from both sides, is someone’s denial of reclining for the person in front of them any more valid than wanting to recline a bit? Moreover, is reclining actually taking away space from the person behind them? I see two potential problems with that thought. First, there is nothing about one’s ticket or anything else that says a seat reclines into the space of the passenger behind the seat. It could be, and I think it’s actually more logical that it is, that the space the seat moves in belongs to the person in the seat. Moreover, if the person in the seat behind the recliner, reclines their seat, haven’t they regained that lost space, though the shape of the space has changed.

    I don’t think the issue is at all as clear cut as those on both sides of it think. I think there is validity all around.

    I would rather look for solutions myself, than worry about who’s doing what to whom. I think thinner seats can be part of the solution, if the airlines permit them to increase seat pitch. I think not permitting seats in economy to recline more than15 degrees should be a given, and it already is in most cases. Finally, I’m looking for other ways to mitigate the problem, but as long as it’s clear most passengers are purchasing tickets based almost exclusively on price, this problem will likely persist.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership. I understand exactly what you mean. The problem of those seats for tall people is that it doesn’t help very much, and in fact puts tall passengers’ knees right into the seat in front of them quickly. I’ve been in those seats and hate them, as the lumbar support is horrible if you move the seat forward as it doesn’t work nearly as well as the Air France shell design they use in international premium seating where the back of the seat slides forward with the seat bottom better and provides support.

    I do think a modified version of the seat, along with a somewhat slimmer design can be helpful, but I think they’ve got to do better than what they have now.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership and comment Curious.

  • Ton

    sure it’s always a tradoff, a while ago i paid 7 euro extra for bc for a 1 hour flight, but it gave me free wifi, free food and drink and a cool & quiet place to work, no brainer.

    still its remarkable that i could fine tune with ba (plus that ba charged about 2200 euro v delta 4400) and that the logical choice the air france/klm/delta northwest offers so little in that

  • Ton

    i think the pitch is 1 thing, i could live with the upright if the seat gave more support, in the upright position the chairs tend to not support you, with the recline more of your back is supported, i know i have seen (prototype seats) with adjustable support,

  • neal1

    Ned, There has too be some standard of size to the seats for them to work. What size are the airlines basing their seat configuration on? Obviously they have a weight in mind. How about length? Is it 5-10 or 6-2? How about this. The left side of the plane is for anyone under 270 pounds and 6 foot 1. The right side will have slightly larger seats and more leg room, but also a price of 15% higher to compensate for lost revenue on cramming. If the airlines came input ancilliary fees into the system, why not put pricing into system to accomodate space. I would be willing to pay a little extra for comfort. When I flew Airtran, I was more than happy to pay an extra $60 for 1st class at the gate one way. People are willing to pay for convience. But not pay more to be stuffed in.

  • Ton

    i did read that some airlines are introducing seat that are upto an inch less wide than conventional ones,

  • Tommy

    I don’t recline my seat unless the person in front of me reclines his into my space. If the person behind me complains, I tell him to work it out with the person in front of me; I will put my seat up if the person in front of me does.