Why you should never touch the airline seat in front of you

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By Christopher Elliott

New rule: Don’t touch the airline seat in front of you.

Don’t tap on it, don’t use it as a brace when you stand up, and definitely no drum solos on the tray table.

Especially no drum solos. 

Janet Ruth Heller remembers a recent flight from Phoenix to Detroit where the baby behind her channeled his inner Art Blakey. The table vibrated, jolted and bumped for several minutes until she’d had enough.

“I turned around and told his mother that I wanted it to stop,” says Heller, a frequent traveler and retired college professor from Portage, Mich. 

Mom cut off the performance by returning the tray table to the upright position, where — pay attention, parents! — it belongs for all young passengers unless it’s mealtime.

Seat kickers and tray table drummers have consistently ranked as the number-one annoyance for air travelers. But the discussion about these bothersome in-flight behaviors has always ended too soon, with standard advice to curb your kids. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

But with economy class airline seats moving closer together, there’s a much broader discussion about making contact with the seat in front of you. And it raises one big question: Is touching someone else’s seat ever acceptable? The answer is almost always no.

Don’t touch the seat by pulling yourself up

The limited debate about seat kickers overlooks an even more annoying passenger behavior: passengers who grab the seat in front of them when they want to stand up. Don’t do that. A new survey by online travel company Kayak says 76% of travelers disapprove of seat grabbing.

Etiquette consultant Jodi RR Smith was awoken when the passenger behind her used the top of her seat for leverage to stand.

“He yanked multiple hairs right out of my head,” she recalls. “When I turned to look at him, he was surprised to see several strands of my hair hanging from his meaty fingers.”

The passenger apologized. Smith didn’t have to tell him that her seat was not a brace, but, you know, her seat. But when he returned to his seat, he was careful to hold onto his armrest, which was, you know, his.

Stop tapping your screen so hard

Sometimes, you aren’t even aware that you’re touching the seat in front of you. But many planes have in-flight entertainment systems that require you to touch them — sometimes forcefully. Adding to the problem: Airline seats are almost paper-thin, which means the passenger in front of you feels every single tap.

“A good deal of the older in-flight entertainment systems use outdated touchscreen technology. Those screens involve pressing very firmly to select items on the screen, often to the point that the passenger in front can feel it,” says Alex Weihmann, a frequent air traveler who works for a software company in Washington, D.C.

Even typing on a laptop computer can send a small and annoying jolt to the passenger in front of you, especially if you’re a forceful typist. The smack-smack of your fingers against the keyboard causes the tray table to vibrate, which then transfers to the passenger. Stop that!

No one should ever kick the seat in front of them

It’s unusual for an adult to kick your airline seat — which is obviously unacceptable. But it happens. Janice Mucalov, a lawyer and writer from Victoria, British Columbia, experienced it when the passenger behind her, “lost in an action movie,” kept bumping her seat with his knees. 

“I turned around and had a friendly chat with him,” she says. He apologized and stopped kicking.

But what about kids? 

“Parents flying with young kids and lap infants are in the especially precarious position of having to police their children’s interactions with the seat in front of them,” says Evie Granville, co-author of “Modern Manners for Moms & Dads: Practical Parenting Solutions for Sticky Social Situations.” “This can be an exhausting undertaking, especially since children often don’t understand that the seatback is actually the back side of someone else’s seat.”

Her recommendation: First, show your kids the person in front of them to make things less abstract. Second, give them a few ground rules. Keep your feet off the seat. Also, the tray table is not a toy — or a drum. 

And for adult passengers who are the victim of a seat-kicker, she has the following advice: Talk to the parent and let them handle the situation. Parents usually have a much better idea of how to positively change their kids’ behavior. If that doesn’t work, ask a flight attendant for help. Scolding kids is minimally useful. (Take it from me as the father of three kids who were not always on their best behavior.)

This shouldn’t be a problem. Airlines ought to give their passengers enough space in economy class so that we don’t constantly bump up against each other. But the problem is now in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to decide on a minimum seat space rule soon.

In the meantime, maybe airlines can offer some practical guidelines for passengers about when they can — and can’t — touch the airline seat in front of them. And don’t forget to pack your patience. You’re gonna need it.

Elliott’s tips on when it’s OK to touch the seat in front of you

You should avoid touching the airline seat in front of you except during certain limited situations.

If the seat makes contact with you and there’s no place to go

Truth is, airlines have been moving the seats so close together that a seat could make contact with you. For example, the person in front of you could lean back, making contact with your knees. In that case, you can continue to make contact with the seat. I would recommend politely asking the passenger in front of you to un-recline your seat so that you have a little more room to move.

During unexpected turbulence or if you lose your balance

If you’re walking through the cabin on the way to the lavatory and you lose your balance, you may have to brace yourself on a seat. If you do, and if you accidentally make contact with someone’s head or if you jolt them, it’s best to apologize. But it’s better to catch yourself using the seat than to possibly fall on top of another passenger.

If no one is sitting in it

Obviously, if there’s no one in the seat in front of you, go crazy. Drum solo, brace, whatever. No one cares. Just don’t forget that the economy class seats are connected, so you may disturb passengers sitting in adjacent seats. 

Your thoughts, please

What do you think? Is it ever OK to touch the seat in front of you, and if so, when? 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 São Paulo.

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