Do you have the right to recline your economy class seat back as far as it goes?

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By Christopher Elliott

Remember last summer’s debate about recline rage on planes?

Betty Austin-Ware doesn’t need a reminder, because she lived it. Austin-Ware, a travel agent from Fort Mill, S.C., flew from Atlanta to Brisbane, Australia, a 21-hour haul, in economy class.

“The person in front of me reclined his seat as far as it would go,” she recalls. “I couldn’t move, not even an inch. Whenever I wanted to get out, I had to stand on the seat.”

It’s worth pointing out that the airline she flew on, Qantas, has taken steps to make flying even more uncomfortable for the average passenger since her trip. It’s reportedly reducing legroom in economy class by an inch on some flights to maximize profits. At the same time, it’s installing new lie-flat business class seats to reward its biggest spenders.

Airlines are reaping the profits as reclining issues flare up

“Little changes add up to millions of dollars,” Gareth Evans, Qantas’ chief financial officer, said.

And that pretty much describes the airline industry’s reaction to recline rage: Without so much as a shrug, many airlines continued squeezing the seats in steerage closer together to make more money while lavishing elite customers with more perks. It’s as if they’re preparing to shoot a sequel to the dystopian sci-fi film Snowpiercer. And it keeps getting worse.

Meaning it’s up to passengers like Austin-Ware to fix this. And here’s where things get interesting. Space is unbelievably tight in the back of the plane. Most airlines allow about 5 degrees of recline in economy class, with an uncivilized 30 to 31 inches of “pitch” (a rough way to measure legroom). This is about 2 inches less space than a decade ago. Crewmembers consistently support a passenger’s “right” to recline the seat all the way, no matter who or what is behind it. So if you have long legs, are trying to work on your laptop or are nursing a baby, you have to either accept the intrusion into your personal space, or negotiate with the recliner.

There are three schools of thought on seat leaning. And, as it turns out, Austin-Ware’s answer lies somewhere between them.

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The absolutist position is as rigid and uncomfortable as those cardboard-thin economy class seats they’re installing on planes. One commenter on my Facebook page claimed the right to recline his seat as far back as it would go because “I paid for it.” He labeled anyone who disagreed with him an “idiot.”

Reclining issues are an airline problem

Travelers who hold this view have their reasons.

“If the seat construction includes the ability to lean back, use it,” says Ron Lent, who works for a real estate company in Tucson, Ariz. “This is not the passenger’s problem. It is the airline’s problem, or more correctly the entire airline industry’s problem. They have shrunk the per-passenger space to an unacceptable level.”

Lent welcomes a confrontation with a fellow passenger. Why? If enough people clash over shrinking space, then maybe the airlines will do something about it. It may be the best reason to encourage passengers to slam their seats back as far as they go the moment a plane reaches cruising altitude. Let’s start a fight! The airline will lose.

The second group, and by far the largest, consists of the compromisers. Teri Tucker, a writer from Seattle, counts herself among them. She experiences severe back pain when she flies, so she likes to recline.

“However, it’s essential to be courteous about it,” she says. “I always look back and mention I’m about to lean back.”

The dialogue makes sense. Most travelers can’t imagine jamming their car seat all the way back into their child’s lap without first saying something. Why should it be any different on a plane?

Low-fare carriers have stopped reclining seats

At the other end of the reclining spectrum: the never-evers. I’m one of them and several of my travel columnist colleagues are, too. We’re in strange company. None other than Spirit Airlines, which has some of the least roomy airline seats in the industry, locks their seats in place — “pre-reclined,” it euphemistically calls them. The reasons are also sound. Economy class seats aren’t massage chairs; they’re meant to get you to your destination safely, and at a cheaper price. If you need to recline, try a lie-flat seat or drive.

All of which brings us to the solution. It isn’t to scream at the passenger leaning back into your lap. It isn’t to pretend to sneeze on their head or point the vents on their face or invite your 7-year-old to use your tray table as a drum set. In fact, the solution is somewhere between the compromisers and the never-evers.

Your flight attendant may support your absolute right to recline your seat, but that doesn’t mean you have such a right. A plane is a shared space. Keep the seat upright if you can, but if you must recline, then ask before you sit back. And don’t claim all the space. That’s rude.

“The airline is at fault,” says Austin-Ware, the travel agent. She tried to avoid a leaning incursion by upgrading to premium economy on her Transpacific flight. To her frustration, she found those seats leaned even more than regular economy.

“There should be more room between seats,” she says. “But airlines are charging more for less.”

Do you have the right to lean your economy class seat back as far as it goes?

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How to deal with ‘recline rage’

Always ask before reclining. Jamming your seat all the way back as soon as you reach cruising altitude and keeping it there is the surest recipe for a confrontation. Remember, it’s a shared space, no matter what your flight attendants say.

If someone leans into your personal space, ask them to unlean a little. Most passengers understand the space shortage. They’re willing to accommodate a reasonable request, even if they know they have the ability to lean all the way back and get away with it.

Move or block. The best solution to recline rage is to ask to move to another available seat. But you also have other options, such as using the infamous Knee Defender, which blocks reclining seats. Note: some airlines have banned this device, so check before deploying it.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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