Do Passengers Have the “Right to Recline?”

A reader, Karen, actually inspired this post by sharing her frustrations of the passenger behind her becoming angry when she reclined her seat back during a long flight. I too, have had several accounts where passengers behind me have rudely nudged my seat, telling me to move forward. I even had a scenario where the man behind me “told on me” and had the flight attendant ask me to move my seat forward for the passenger-behind-me’s comfort. What’s the right thing to do here?

I understand common courtesy, such as moving your reclined seat up during meal time, when the person behind you needs to use the restroom, or if their knee caps are buckled under the back of your seat, but when is it fair to have to “sleep” completely upright because of the person behind you when the rest of the plane is reclined in dreamland?

The way I see it is, I “purchase” the seat; therefore, I should be able to use all of the seat’s features, including the pre-set recline feature. I respect the person behind me, but they should also expect the person in front of them to recline as they please.

Reader Karen C., from Texas, comments, “As a frequent flyer, I have been approached on several occasions by the passenger behind me and asked to ‘sit up.’ One time in particular was in economy on a flight from Thailand to the US when I had thankfully dozed off in the middle of the night. The gentleman behind me began violently shaking my seat and asked me to sit up. The ANA flight attendant nearby nodded so I ‘sat up’ as requested (and no, he did not get up to use the restroom). I am wondering what the rule is in regards to this situation. I never recline on short flights or during meal service, and I always recline slowly. Personally, I feel that I paid for a seat with a recline button and should be allowed to use it.”

After doing some research and finding related articles of this topic, there seems to roughly be a 50/50 split on the passenger’s “right to recline”. Some take Karen’s stance, and others disagree by saying that they have a right to “adequate knee space”. This seems to be an on-going heated debate, and in an extreme case, two passengers even got into a fist fight in-flight over a reclined seat, which prompted an emergency landing in 2010.

I personally know several people who spend the extra money (or miles) to fly business or first class to avoid these awkward scenarios all together.

Where do you stand? If the passenger behind you asked you to “sit up”, do you comply? Please share your thoughts.


  1. says

    I hate when the passenger in front of me reclines, but I do fully believe they have that right so I don’t complain.

    In my perfect world, airlines would just take away the recline feature and then there wouldn’t be any disagreements, but until then, I will respect someone’s option to recline, even at the expense of my space.

  2. says

    This is where these new fixed shell seats in economy class come in – they slide forward to create the recline whilst the shell itself remains in its default position.

    Best part is that legroom is maintained.

    Worst part is normally the padding is as thin as a cheap layer of foam.

    I respect the person infront of me wanting to recline, but please don’t recline during the takeoff phase of the flight (say 10k). If the worse comes to the worse and an emergency evacuation is needed, I don’t particularly want to fight your seat as well as everyone else trying to get out of the plane….

  3. Damon says

    I think it depends on the person height. I am short, so had no problem with people reclining in front of me. But once I was sitting next to a very tall guy, his knee was already touching the seat in front of him, even though the seat is not recline.

  4. Ken says

    First off, it is an understood fact among every passenger in coach that leg space is a scarcity. This is the fault of the airline. Despite this, most airlines do provide the ability for seats to recline. Thus it is the right of the passenger to use this seat feature. However, I feel that those passengers who do exercise this right is being inconsiderate to his fellow passenger behind him or her.

  5. NB says

    First off, it’s illegal to recline in the take-off and landing phases of the flight. These passengers should be chucked off, preferably without a parachute.

    Second, it very much depends upon the length of the flight. On overnight flights, when you would reasonably expect everyone to try to sleep, it’s completely unreasonable for anyone to complain. If they can’t fit into the seat, then they should avoid economy class. On short flights, by contrast, it seems greedy to use the recline feature.

    The difficulty comes in mid-length flights and long-length day flights. Many people will choose to sleep whereas many others will want to work with a laptop. My personal mantra is that it’s ok to recline when the airline dims the cabin lights but not when the cabin is deemed to be “awake”. Fortunately I always fly in Economy Plus so it’s less of an issue.

  6. snuggliestbear says

    I am somewhere in the middle. If you are courteous and at least look behind you and recline slowly and in stages, I think reclining your seat is okay. However lately I have been behind far too many no look-fast recliners. I like to use the tray table to rest my laptop on and watch movies, but my screen has come very close be being snapped in half lately due to fast recliners. I wonder if I would get compensation from anyone (passenger or the airline) if they actually did break my laptop. My guess is no. I hope these new economy shell style seats fix this issue.

  7. Mike says

    Reclining should NOT be removed as someone stated. I have neck and back injuries. If I have to sit up for awhile I will have to do an emergency landing. Reclining should and is a right. What we need is more space between rows.

  8. Matt says

    The reclining seat is part of the product and the control is provided for the passenger in front. While courtesy is always advised, it’s their seat and their right.

    Personally I think people waaaay overstate the lack of legroom in coach. Most products are just fine (and I’m not short!). Seat width is far more confining. The average shoulder width is something like 20-21 in (

  9. matt says

    This is for people seeking to be firefighters so maybe fitter/larger than average but not too far removed.

    Average seats are 17-18 in wide, but I believe this is without armrests. Add in the armrest width and at best you’re packing people in shoulder to shoulder like sardines. Stick a couple of broad people in a row (say 95th percentile) and you’re at just about 47 in for 2 people, and for 17.5 in wide seats with 2 in armrests 56.5 in total in a 3 seat bank. That’s 10 in left for the poor person stuck in the middle.

  10. Peter says

    I’m over 6 feet, and I’d rather none of the seats recline. I buy a small space, I know what I’m in for, but when the person in front of me reclines, I’ve got less space, and me reclining in response doesn’t bring that space back

  11. Simon says

    @Peter: You purchased a ticket for transport in a seat, features and all, including the ability to recline. So did the customer in front of you. What you view as being a reduction of your “space”, is a utilization of theirs.

    The average height in the US is 5 foot 10 inches. The perk of being tall does come with a price. You either pay it through compromise and deal with cramped discomfort or fork out a little extra money for a more appropriately pitched seat.

    I’m over 6 feet as well and routinely pay extra to purchase more leg room. Being exceptionally tall is my perk, and therefore not the airline or another passenger’s price to pay.

  12. Jeff W says

    I’m 6″5″ amd with the normal 31-32″ pitch in most airplanes, my knees are generally right up against the seat in front of me. My knees usually stop the seat from reclining very far, though there are those you try with all of their might to recline the seat. One gentlemen even suggested I get myself a business class seat so he could be comfortable. He was a bit upset when I asked him for the money to buy the seat. Do you have the “right” to recline your seat, yes. Do you have the right to injure someone else in the process, no.

  13. Brian Matt says

    Look at this from what is legally allowed and what is “my personal feelings”.
    You have the right to recline your seat at all times except take-off and landing and meal service.
    If you don’t like it, buy a biz class seat.
    If the person behind you does not like it, not their call. You are not in violation. That passenger should have purchased biz class.

  14. PatB says

    I have to agree that the airlines are to blame — in that I’ve nearly had my laptop broken several times by fast-recliners.

    The row-to-row spacing is too narrow, as well as the seat-to-seat spacing in the same row. I usually book an aisle seat just so that I can turn away from my neighbor to have room to work on my laptop — which then means that my elbows and laptop get clipped by the beverage cart or a fast-moving FA.

    I would require airline executives to fly 100k every year in coach class, just to see what it’s like.

  15. Levi Flight says

    The airlines are responding to price pressure, I guess. I am lucky to fly economy plus minimum in the US and if traveling imternationally it is often a night flight anyway. If we see E+ being something people will pay for – those that want more space- then perhaps we’ll see more space on planes.

  16. Chris W. says

    I’m 6’5″ and my knees hit the seat in front of me, even without a recline. That doesn’t seem to stop most people in front of me from trying to recline and bumping my knees several times to try to recline as if they are going to break the laws of physics and have their seat occupy the same space as my legs.

    The last two long haul flights I’ve been on I’ve actually had the person in front of me wait until I get up to use the bathroom and then recline the seat the whole way back while I was gone, making it almost impossible for me to sit down.

    If you want to push your seat back right onto my knees so that I can’t move one inch during a long flight, then I’m going to make sure that you don’t get a wink of sleep by kicking you the entire flight just as you fall asleep. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally while I try to move a little so my legs don’t fall asleep, sometimes by shaking your seat on the way to the restroom.

    Juvenile? Maybe, but you also don’t see me cramming my seat down the throat of the person behind me if it looks like they’re big. Coach is tight as it is, everyone claiming a “right” at other people’s expense should learn some common courtesy.

  17. the dad says

    BTW, Happy Birthday to my favorite blogger!!..The only time I mind the recliners is when I am about to eat.Other times I expect the person in front of me to recline.Enjoy bday!!

  18. Matt says

    I have a bad neck/back and I still do not recline my seat in coach. I know what a pain in the you-know-what it is to be on the other end so I feel it’s hypocritical for me to do so (I bring a high-end neck pillow with me instead). Also, to echo a few other comments, if the person in front of me does the speed-recline, especially during beverage service, believe that the remainder of their flight will be a living hell. :)

  19. Michael says

    Wow – definitely some malicious moves out there!

    I’m a little on the tall side myself, and I am desperate for the recline – even at the expense of my knee room.

    For a tall person, I find most seats to push me forward. The “support” for neck and shoulders just hits me too low in my upper back. I can’t wait to recline – I can’t stand the very upright stance the seats force me into before that point.

    Next, I think that we all have different body shapes, but only each of us know how big/small we are. So that’s each of our own responsibilities. If you’re too tall for a coach seat, or too wide for a coach seat, don’t blame it on the occupants of the seats around you. They didn’t know you were coming. But you did. You could have prevented the situation by upgrading or figuring out an exit row or something.

    I HATE it when people recline in front of me, but I don’t hate them for it, and I don’t retaliate. I knew I was tall getting into that situation – they didn’t.

    I wish some of these posters above would take a little personal responsibility for their situations.

  20. Jeff Gleason says

    @ Michael, I agree in total. Me suffering so that someone else who knew what they were getting into doesn’t have to suffer is not classified as “common courtesy”. Personal responsibility is a fading concept I’m afraid; everything is everyone else’s fault.

  21. Arlington Traveler says

    @ Michael, I agree with you. Personally as someone who is 6’1″ (and all legs) and wide shoulders economy travel is a bane. Since the planes are all full, tricks such as getting the aisle and window and finding an exit row seat are harder and harder. That’s why I chose a job where I pretty much only have to travel on a limited basis. I am lucky, and some big folks aren’t so lucky and sometimes take a job which requires business travel because it is the only job they cooudl fine. Guess what if you travel for business frequently your company isn’t going to change their travel policy because you don’t fit in a coach seat well and upgrading isn’t always possible even if you are willing to pay, just as avoiding a middle seat because the planes are fuller than ever. So there are inevitably going to be people who lose it and while I’m not excusing them and I never lost it even when I traveled I can understand why people do lose it.

  22. Alex says

    If the person in front of me reclines his or her seat then I will politely request that they sit upright as they will be invading my space and I am a person of large stature but I cannot afford to pay for business class.If the person refuses to sit upright then I will make sure that they do by making life uncomfortable by kicking the back of their seat until they do sit up.

  23. Zinneken says

    Not everyone can afford business or first. Regardless of the price difference between coach and “better legroom and back room”, it seems to me customers are left to have to deal with an airline’s right to cramp as many passengers in economy as they pretty please.

    Flying has consequences on health. Some people (most) are better at dealing with those health consequences then others. Think DVT for example…

    While some in-flight limitations are due to a passenger’s lifestyle choices being regulated (alcohol abuse forbidden, smoking forbidden, etc.), no passenger should be penalised for being tall.

    A tall or short passenger didn’t choose to be tall or short. At the same time, no passenger should be penalised for having a tall passenger sitting behind him, or have an advantage for having a short passenger behind.

    In the current state, the argument will always exist: the front passenger has paid for the reclining seat, the back passenger has paid for the space in front of him without the front seat reclining.

    Yet, we as passengers are the sole responsible for this problem!!

    We allow the airlines cramping (too) many seats in coach so that there is no possibility other then having an increasing amount of “arguments” about whose space is more important, and who paid for what.

    Why do we as passengers not unite and demand more legroom so that everyone can recline their seats, and have the possibility to tuck their legs under the seat in front?

    I am sure removing 3 rows will not have a dramatic impact on prices, yet will have a dramatic impact on people’s well being and, even more important, SAFETY (passengers fighting, DVT, other health, etc.) on board.

    Just my two cents …

  24. Landon says

    Lets say you kick the seat in front of u to make the fore passengers life a living hell. The passenger complains at the stewardess. If the problem persist, the captain get notified, problem escalates to an emergency landing and upon touchdown the plane gets surrendered by Us marshalls and FBI. What did u win? Was it all worth it to hang on the mercy of a federal judge and a bonus felony on ur criminal record?

  25. Alexander Clarke says

    The problem stems from the ability to recline, for example on a recent flight that I was on a gentleman was finishing his meal and had a cup of hot coffee on his fold down tray, the person in front never bothered to check to see if the person behing still had their tray down.
    The sudden reclining of the seat caused the hot coffee to spill all over the mans lap.
    The fact is that seats only recline about 4 inches at the most so you do not gain a great deal of added space, however the person behind needs as much space as possible to eat and drink and indeed to fold down their tray.The fact is that some individuals are so pig headed that they will recline their seat just because they can and not because they really want to.
    It never ceases to amaze me how people can be so inconsiderate and rude, I suppose it is down to the way they have been brought up as a child, or should I say dragged up.

  26. Steve Chow says

    It should not be the right of the person in front or behind, but rather up to the discretion of the cabin crew. People seem to be too inconsiderate and immature to exercise common sense to use this.

    Asking for it to be banned just because it annoys you is just as bad as pushing your seat back without considering those behind you.

  27. Joce Cuervo says

    It’s obvious none of the people saying “deal with it” have experienced the real physical pain of having something jammed against your knees for hours.

    If it was just a case of reclining my seat away from them, then sure, not a real problem (that’s probably what they’re thinking…)

    I’d like to see how long *they* put up with a feeling like having a knife under your kneecap before complaining. Maybe they should try it before claiming they have a ‘right’ to something.

  28. Nick Donnelly says

    I TOTALLY disagree with you – unless it is ‘night’ on the plane and the majority of seats are back.

    I never recline my seat – I just feel too guilty – it is a purely selfish act that destroys the experience of the person behind unless they recline too. You are effectively dictating to them that they must recline now or have the screen 10cm from their face at the wrong angle, not use a laptop and just generally be uncomfortable.

    It comes down to selfishness. If you don’t care about the person behind – recline. If you have some consideration for others, don’t do it.

    I TOO paid for my seat.

  29. Pissed says

    Your are a false entitled person if you feel reclining is a right. Especially when one tries to cheat the system and do so before takeoff or after landing. I am currently behind a 5 foot women sitting on the Tarmac and she reclined directly after the flight attendand sat down. I asked her to return the seat and she said “i paid for it, why should i” Needless to say I feel fully justified by ensuring she will not sleep on this flight. Abuse the social system and you should be abused back. Respect your fellow passenger and you will be respected in return. Common sense just don’t be a fool

  30. Lady Grace says

    Here is my pet peeve. I was riding on a highway bus relaxing in “my seat” in a comfortable reclined position. The bus makes a stop and this moronic asshole who takes a seat behind me, decides he`s entitled to move my seat just cause he feels like it. This prick reaches over my seat and depresses the control in the armrest to instantly move my seat to an upright position. Irritated and annoyed I move my seat back to a reclined position. Asshole behind me starts barking at me while raising his voice and making a scene. “You are violating my personal space!!!!!” he rants. I informed him, “this is my seat.” Well……. he had no intention of acknowledging the fact that he was in reality violating my personal space. Fact: The seating setting I choose for my personal comfort level, is none of this assholes business. I told him to recline his seat and leave my seat the hell alone. I was actually napping before this dickhead decided to harass me without provocation. This moron turned the overhead light on which violated the relaxing dimness on the bus. I however, did not respond to this irritation as he has the right to turn on the overhead lighting, as this is a feature of his seating area. It`s not my business if he wants to turn his light on, just as it`s none of his business which seat position I choose for myself. As the seating debate rages on, the real issue here is boundaries. If only everyone could learn how to respect boundaries, and have the basic intelligence to realize that just because something may pose a level of irritation to us, it does not give us the right to violate the boundaries set in place. Boundaries are kind of like farts….. you can tolerate your own but can`t stand anyone else’s.

  31. Mark says

    Everyone has equal space yet some like to recline and take share of the persons seated behind them.

    Just off a flight where those seated in fronted of me had extra leg room and genuinely 6 foot between their heads and the panel in front of them. The person in front of me reclined to reduce my space between my head and the back of their seat to less than a foot.

    Its selfishness, plain and simple.

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