No more reclining airline seats! Let’s lock ’em

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s an idea for creating a better flying experience: Why not stop economy-class airline seats from reclining? 

It might help passengers like David Reid, who recently flew from Fresno, Calif., to Los Angeles. 

“I had someone’s seat almost on my lap,” says Reid, who works for a multinational tool manufacturer in California. “It became worse when I was trying to eat.”

Some discount airlines already lock their seats in the upright position. But with seat space getting tighter almost by the day, maybe the idea is ready for primetime. 

Should more airlines disable their seats from reclining — or, in airline lingo, “pre-recline” them? Should the government even require it? The answers might surprise you.

Which airlines limit economy class seats from reclining? 

Some airlines already stop their seats from reclining. Most seats on low-fare airlines like Allegiant and Spirit haven’t reclined in years. In 2018, British Airways introduced “pre-reclined” seats (there’s that phrase again) on flights of four hours or less. Finnair even introduced a business class seat that doesn’t recline, although, to be fair, it offers plenty of space.

There are some benefits to having a no-recline configuration. Seats that don’t recline are lighter, which saves fuel. And they also eliminate passenger confrontations over personal space.

“Disabling seat reclining might solve the issue of personal space and reduce passenger confrontations,” says Derrick Hathaway, an ergonomics expert for a medical device company. “It would ensure that each passenger had the same legroom throughout the trip, limiting conflict.”

Passengers are not waiting for airlines to protect what little room they have left. In 2003, inventor Ira Goldman began selling the Knee Defender, a device that prevents the seat in front of you from leaning back. (Related: Stop trying to switch airline seats!)

Knee Defender users say they have no choice. Airlines have moved the seats closer together, from a roomy 34 inches of seat pitch before deregulation to a claustrophobia-inducing 28 inches on some planes today.

Would passengers accept economy class seats that don’t recline? 

Sitting in an upright position for an hour or two is one thing. But doing it on a long-haul flight, it’s quite another. Bob Bacheler recalls when Cathay Pacific experimented with no-recline seats in economy class a few years ago.

“I sat in one of these seats on a 13-hour flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles,” recalls Bacheler, managing director of a medical transport service. “It was not a comfortable experience.”

Bacheler flew the same flight the next year and noticed that the airline restored the seat recline — no doubt because passengers complained. 

So maybe a transpacific flight is too long for having nonreclining seats. But what about a transcontinental flight? 

British Airways seems to have set the bar at four hours for locking the seats. What if we adopted that standard in the States, locking seats for all but the longest coast-to-coast flights. 

It seems passengers on low-fare airlines have also accepted “pre-reclined” seats without much debate. So there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that locking airline seats is an idea that would fly in America.

Is there a better way?

I know what you’re thinking. Am I serious? Do I really think all airlines should lock all their economy class seats? 

Maybe.

Passengers are skeptical that locking their seats will solve anything. Even Reid, the traveler wedged in place by a reclining passenger, says he’s unsure if locking the seats is a good idea. On that flight from Fresno to Los Angeles, he noticed the passenger leaning into his space was struggling because the seats were too small for her. She just needed a little extra room.  

“Some people may have injuries or medical conditions requiring them to recline their seats,” he says. 

Instead of disabling reclining seats or considering the installation of nonreclining seats to prevent passenger frustration, airlines should address the problem of shrinking personal space.

“That’s a better approach,” says Tolga Turgut, an assistant professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s College of Aeronautics. “Because a seat pitch of 28 inches, which is the tightest seating allowed, makes for a very cramped flight, especially for a taller person.”

Should airlines require economy class seats to be locked in the upright position?

The government already requires airline seats to be locked in the upright position during takeoff and landing. Why not just keep them there? That might not be a realistic idea on long-haul flights. But on flights of four hours or less, why not?

And here’s why: Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seats. The agency has dragged its feet on the issue, even as seats have moved closer together. 

If the government doesn’t act to protect your airspace by setting a minimum seat dimension, the least it can do is to protect your knees, hands, laptop computers and drinks from damage resulting from a careless passenger jamming his seat back. 

Maybe it’s up to the FAA to either set a minimum seat size — or order the airlines to lock their seats in place. 

Elliott’s tips for surviving a seat leaner

Until airlines stop their seats from leaning — or the government requires it — passengers will lean their seats back. Here’s how to survive a seat leaner:

Ask them to move back

Most passengers will accommodate you by either moving back or at least meeting you halfway. Most importantly, be polite. Words like “please” and “thank you” can help you recover lost airspace.

Switch seats

If you need extra space, try to switch seats, if a comparable seat is available, with another passenger or move to an empty seat. For example, if you have long legs and you’re traveling with a young child, just swap seats. 

Call a flight attendant

A crewmember can mediate a dispute between passengers if necessary. They can order the passenger in front of you to sit up — or tell you to accept the leaning passenger. It depends on the circumstances.

You can completely avoid this problem by buying a business-class seat or booking an economy-class ticket on an airline that has enough room in economy class, like JetBlue, Southwest, or one of the Gulf carriers (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar).

Your thoughts, please

Is it time to lock airline seats in place? If not, why not? If so, how long should the flight be before we unlock them? The comments are open.

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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. He is based in Rio de Janeiro.

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