To recline or not to recline? | The war over airline seats, Is it okay to recline your seat?, to recline or not to recline,  the war over reclining seats on aircraft.

There are around 160 seats on the Qantas 737-800 flying me from Brisbane to Perth and every one of them is in the upright position except the one in front of me. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration but that’s how it feels. Although it’s broad daylight and we’re on a very civilized 11am flight, the lass in front of me needs to sleep. She must be tired, poor dear, because as soon as the seatbelt light went off, she reclined her seat as far as it could go, till it was about 30cm from my face. (That’s her snoozing in the bottom left corner of the picture above.)

I know it’s always a tight squeeze in economy – airline travel is not meant to be fun, unless of course you’re lucky enough to be travelling at the pointy end of the plane. But the seating on the 737-800 does seem particularly intimate. Or perhaps it just feels that way having spent five hours with a seat 30cm from my face. I’d like to be charitable and think that she came off a connecting flight and was very tired. But more likely she’d had a big night or is just plain selfish.

I’m inclined to think the latter, because after an initial kip, she spent a lot of the flight watching movies, giving herself an impressive amount of space since the passenger in front of her kept his seat in the upright position.

My other half and I know there are a couple of certainties when we travel – things that we have a 99.9% strike rate with. For him, it’s being picked out for the explosives test just as you pass through security. He’s tried every trick in the trade – trying not to make eye contact with the security officer, taking a long time to put his belt back on so that someone else gets chosen – you name it, he’s tried it, but they get him every time. Still, it’s harmless enough stuff, a minor inconvenience in a traveller’s day.

Me? My misfortune is to get the traveller who reclines his seat as far back as he can, for as long as he can, without any warning. So I’ve just pulled out the laptop and settled in to do a bit of work, and next minute, bang! Back goes the seat and there it stays for the rest of the flight. If I’m lucky, I’ll have grabbed the laptop screen just in time to stop it shattering. Thank god I’m not jiggling a baby on my lap!

With plenty of time to kill on today’s flight to Perth, I did some research. Of the 160 or so seats on the plane, all of them occupied, you could have counted the number of fully reclined seats on one hand. One of them, of course, was the one in front of me. And no, she didn’t put it up while we were eating lunch. And no, I didn’t ask her to, although I probably should have.

But it got me thinking: do we really just have to grin and bear it? And is a passenger’s right to recline more important than their neighbour’s comfort, even when it results in a gross invasion of someone’s space?


A lot of these issues came to a head last year when a couple of flights in the United States were diverted after quarrels broke out between passengers over reclining seats. Flight attendants are generally supportive of people’s rights to recline their seats and are reluctant to take a stance. If it’s available, you can’t stop someone using it, right? But as airlines cram more and more people into their economy sections, why should it be up to individual passengers to sort out the niceties?

One Arizona man offered an interesting take on the issue in this article in USA Today a few months ago. He welcomes confrontation with fellow passengers and says there should be more of it. He reasons that if enough people clash over shrinking space, airlines might do something about it.

For those who are firmly in the “yes to recline” camp, note that there can be a happy medium. You can read, stretch out, perhaps even snooze just by tilting your chair back slightly; you don’t have to recline it to the max. The Independent Traveller website has a handy guide to the etiquette of seat backs and elbow room.

Normally I would have opted for an aisle seat on a long flight as it feels less claustrophobic. But it’s a long time since I’ve done the east-west haul across our vast continent and I thought it might be fun to look out the window. And it was. Although wedged into a space that really wasn’t fit for a human being, I tried to focus instead on the awesome views. It’s views like this that make the discomfort of air travel worthwhile., to recline or not to recline, the war over airline seats.

What do you think? Should passengers be allowed to fully recline their seats on daytime flights? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • I think it’s ok to recline seats whenever you want, but at meal times they should be upright and the cabin crew should ask people to do so. If the person in front reclines, your space will be the same if you recline too. Best of all is a better designed chair, like Cathay Pacific use, which reclines on its own axis (ie not just the seat back reclining): it has almost no impact on the person behind, even when fully reclined,

    • Yes, but it’s very hard working on a laptop if you’re reclined. And not everyone wants to sleep during the day. Are they economy seats that you’re referring to with Cathay Pacific, Alison?

      • So you get a legitimate response, and veto it straight away. if you’re so unhappy with the space you’ve been provided with buy a business or first class seat.

      • Hi Christine. I’ve flown Cathay Pacific and yes the seats that recline on their own axis are in economy. With regards to working on a laptop, if you plan on working on the flight and need the comfort of space to work, may i suggest purchasing a business class ticket, or simply wait until you’re off the plane to continue work.

      • Going by your logic not everyone wants to work on a laptop on a plane either. It is not a flying office. As many have pointed out if you recline your seat you would have the same amount of space back. It is just that you feel the need to have everyone accommodate you but don’t have the courage to even ask politely. This argument is really old and one wonders if you are just writing this to get your readership up. I am 6’2″ and travel 150,000 miles a year for the last 5 years. I don’t complain when people in front of me recline as long as it’s done slowly. I have no problems working on my laptop. Occasionally when I am tired I recline even on a 1 hour trip. I do it slowly so as to give warning and have my seat up during meal service. Seats recline on a plane to make a plane ride in economy bearable. If you choose not to recline then it is really your choice. You shouldn’t complain about those that choose to do so. If you are looking for comfort then buy a business class seat. Don’t recline if it makes you feel better or more in touch with the common person.

  • Reclining should be banned. I very very rarely put my seat back, mainly because I am conscious of other people’s feelings and space. The trouble with our world is that most people, and not only young people, have no idea of personal space any more.

    • Oh but we do. We understand the value of personal space because your generation put a price on it. I price which clearly you can’t afford, or do not wish to pay. If you’re personal space is so precious: pay for it. Buy a business class or first class seat. Your mock-humility is sickening.

  • Hi Christine

    Interesting article to share your frustrations on reclined seats “entering your perceived space”.

    I agree with Alison in an earlier comment on the right to recline/the role of cabin staff in asking seats be upright for meal times, when turbulence is likely, take off/landing etc.

    Best recommendations are :

    If reclining your seat glance behind you and recline slowly. While you may meet a frustrated fellow passenger that is not your issue as you have taken care to not jolt the other passenger with an unexpected movement.

    If space/legroom is a priority then upgrade to exit row or other alternatives.

    I am 6’2″ and travel long-haul frequently on numerous budget and mainstream airlines……………..sometimes it is hell in the air, other times it is bearable. I always treat myself to comfort when back on the ground and airports are a distant memory. Destinations are what matter in this case NOT the journey, the antithesis to LIFE.


  • You have to be kidding yourself. You know if you recline your own seat you will have the EXACT same amount of room. I travel every week on planes and i am 6’1 and sit in economy. If they were not meant to recline the airlines would make them so they didn’t. Next time please just recline your own seat.

  • You knew the seat in front reclined when you bought the ticket. That was a condition of your purchase. If you’re not happy with that condition, go business class. Or lobby Qantas to change the rules.

  • I fly VERY regularly – both short haul and long haul. Short haul (2-3 hours) I can understand to a degree the argument not to recline, however as you have exactly the same right to recline to give yourself space, in the end I don’t agree with the “no recline” argument. That you want/need to work does not outweigh someone’s need/want/right to sleep or rest by reclining their seat – slowly and with care. That your laptop doesn’t fit in the space you have purchased isn’t my problem either. Upgrade.

    As for long haul, the “no recliners” have no arguement at all (outside of meal times when all seats should be upright) in my opinion. I had abuse at the hands of husband and wife behind me once and I responded with the same argument above i.e. they have the right to recline. They were aghast that I would even argue the point! That they have the same right to recline fell on deaf ears and comments that I was selfishness/rude/inconsiderate et al spewed forward. This was a long haul flight by the way.

    If someone doesn’t want to use the space they have paid for, that is their call. Don’t dictacte/tell me I can’t use what I’ve paid for.

    • So with you John! Those who moan about reclining are the ones who are selfish….I have traveled for years both short and long all and its only in the last year or so that this stupid reclining argument has started…I have no idea why, perhaps people are just not inclined to be tolerant any more. Also if you want to work on a flight that’s your choice and as you say John those that moan about this need to upgrade or just take a chill pill. Perhaps you should have done your work before flying!!

  • Dear Christine,

    Interesting article, but to be honest this issue has been around for so long.
    I was wondering though do you have a non-reclining policy? Or is it just when it is convenient for you and suits your needs?

    • Obviously seats need to recline on an overnight or long-haul flight, Bob. My policy at other times has been not to recline but perhaps I’ll have to re-think that. From now on, I might be the one throwing my seat back as soon as the seatbelt light goes off. Hopefully some of my critics will be sitting right behind me. 🙂

  • This is a wonderful and insightfully written post. I agree. I always feel bad about reclining my seat so tend to be polite and grin and bear the upright position for the entire long-haul flight.

  • if you value your space so much why not booking business or first class in the first instance. As all things in life, you get what you pay for.

  • recline when you need to but PLEASE adjust the seat and meal and other times such as watching TV. You need to always be considerate of others. No one needs to stay inclined the whole time (during meals and watching tv). Its just plan ignorant

  • Stop your complaining and just recline your own seat already! The seats have a recline setting use it! People that just whinge about things they can do something about are just attention seekers! Either pay for an upgrade or shut up!!!
    Thanks for the Monday laugh! LOL

  • I agree with upright seats at meal times, but at other times, one should have the right to recline the seat, because it is available. If you felt so uncomfortable with this, you should have spoken up and politely asked the person in front of you to maybe only recline it half-way. I have done that in international flights and the person had no problem adjusting the position of his seat. I have also asked the person in front of me to place their seat upright when my meal was serves and they did without argument. I have also reclined my seat to regain the space I lost. Sometimes we need to just calmly speak up instead of complaining after doing nothing. We all know that economy seats are tight and we should just learn to deal with it.

  • I think your article’s unfair. Sure it’s inconvenient to have some recline their seat, but did you engage that person to have a reasonable conversation about it? From the article, it would appear not. It appears that you’ve taken the easy route by avoiding a potential conflict situation at the time and now taking pot shots at the “perpetrator” and providing no right of reply. It’s a bit rich and unfortunately, while raising some good points about etiquette on airlines, have come across sounding sanctimonious and entitled.

  • I came to this blog just to comment on this post. Clickbait or not, I don’t care. I fly a lot, both domestic and international. I work 16 hours days when on the road, I need my sleep and the downtime on the plane is the perfect opportunity to catch up on some ZZZ’s. You mention here your frustration came from you pulling out your laptop to do some work. DO IT IN BUSINESS CLASS, ITS WORK! Basically, you cheaped out on your seat, went economy, tried to do business whilst someone who was having a sleep and watching movies in front of you was not doing any business related activities.

  • Obviously a lot of your readers are recliners. Well people, we know that if we recline we will have the same space but then the person behind us suffers. How about turning around and asking nicely: “Would you mind if I reclined slightly…” I bet you are the “slam-back” variety who don’t care if we are eating, or watching the screen. Manners, people!

  • If you don’t like reclining seats may I respectfully suggest that you fly choose a different airline, like Emirates, next time. Emirates is definitely roomier. Qantas used to be my airline of choice. For me it is now an airline of last resort. Seats should however, be upright at mealtimes,

  • Christine your story is very selfish. Seats should be able to be reclined at all times without fear that the person behind will be offended. of course, during meals the seat should be upright – but at other times the seat can be reclined to enjoy the amenity that is part of the fare that every passenger has paid. The simple response if you feel crowded is to recline your seat. That’s easy, non confrontational and common sense. Oh – dont assume its your right to use your laptop – most times when I travel I cant because the seat in front has been (legitimately) reclined. Maybe you don’t feel that others should drive during peak hour, because it inconveniences you on the road!!

  • It must have been harrowing, who would expect such a Neanderthal on a flight! How dare she recline a seat she paid for, invading your personal space whilst you enjoyed your readily available meal! I also can’t believe your laptop was still functional in such an awkward position! How ever did you have the space to pen this article? If only flights had a designated area, for people who wish to have extra room – Maybe they could call it ‘Business Class’, so travellers lucky enough to be able to fly cross country will have the option? Otherwise how ever will we survive these dark days? I would rather be living in a shanti village, drinking dirty water, eating once every few days than put up with this ‘seat reclining’ behaviour any longer!

  • At meal times – yes, put your seat up. All other times recline is fine. Much more comfortable and person behind – recline as well, watch a movie, not work. If you have to work – fly business class 🙂

    • Not everyone can afford to fly business class, Minka. In any case, you could just as easily argue that the handful of people who want to sleep on a midday flight should fly business class.

      • I disagree Christine, those that want to sleep on a midday flight are using something that is part of what they pay for – something that every passenger has to right to do. I’m sure others on here have mentioned that we don’t all keep the same sleep patterns, we don’t all have the same schedules. Sometimes that one hour flight is on the back of a 14 hr flight. So yes, if you don’t like it either have the grace to accept that it’s the person’s right to use the facility or save up for an upgrade. Just because you can’t afford the upgrade does not mean the person in front of you has to accommodate you. Consideration is nice but giving up their comfort for you is not your right.

  • Do you also have complaints about people who leave their reading light on, when everyone else is trying to sleep? How about the window seat person, who needs to get up and go to the bathroom? Crying babies? They’re quite frustrating aren’t they. How about tall people? Maybe fat people? Snorers? What about couples who cuddle up and display affection to one another? We all have our pet hates, and you are absolutely entitled to yours. But you could be a little more compassionate in how you describe your fellow passengers.

    • No worries about people leaving their reading light on – I always carry an eye mask. Happy for people to cuddle up. Don’t like snorers. Do you? I’ll just have to live with that one, won’t I? I’ve travelled a lot in window seats and a lot in aisle seats and the bathroom thing has never really been an issue. In fact, on the flight referred to in this blog post where I was sitting in the window seat, I waited till my neighbours got up to use the bathroom and I went at the same time. It’s interesting that I, who was considerate to the people around me, should apparently be more compassionate but no such compassion is expected from the “recline at all cost” brigade, not even during meal service. Clearly I have different ideas about what constitutes basic courtesy.

  • Please if you want that thing( your perceived lack of comfort)- refer your dissatisfaction to the airline instead of blaming your fellow passengers .What if I’m tried and wanted to have a nap but then you wanted to do work on your laptop, I should accommodate you? don’t be stupid.

    If you want to do Business(work) on the plane then buy a Business ticket.

    OH not enough space for your laptop Buy a Tablet which does the same.

    Although in your case that may not work as Money not matter how little looks an issue for you

    • I actually thought I was suggesting that it was a wider issue that needs to be addressed by airlines, but perhaps you’ve not understood this John as you do seem to have some trouble communicating – I can’t even understand your last comment about money; it doesn’t make sense and bears no relevance to anything I’ve written.

  • John, Agree it may be a first world problem but surely that doesn’t warrant your unkind comments to Christine? That’s first world nastiness.
    Christine, I travel from Brisbane to Perth 2-3 times a year to visit my in-laws and have done for the past 10 years. My last trip in Jan this year, was the most challenging, with my 16 month old son not wanting to sit still for the entire 4 hour trip. I can honestly say that when it came time to swap with my husband and hand my gorgeous little monkey over to him, that seat was going back every single millimeter I could squeeze out of it, and then some. Did I feel for the person behind me? Well yes, but…I guess I justified my controversial day time recline with the fact that the person behind me had equal rights to recline too. At the end of the day it’s not really individual selfishness that drives us to do such outrageous things such as reclining our airplane seats, it’s just ordinary human needs. So please, please to all those recliner haters out there, don’t decline the recline but rather put pressure on the airlines to provide adequate space for each seat so we’re all comfortable which ever way our flight neighbours care to sit.

  • Recline of seats in economy should be outlawed.
    Airlines could have rows of seats that are recline seats – 10 rows for all the selfish people. Given the first person in economy gets front space that means every row behind them has purchased the space in the front with their seat. The space behind your seat if the person behind you, their space.

    Therefore if you recline, you are recline into the space of the person behind… just look at a plane configuration.
    I had a flight from LAX to NYC – +5 hrs after a 13 hr flight Bne to LAX where Aussie woman and her 3 yo kid reclined seats all way back, and we asked them if they could not recline so far.. “nicely, I might add”, and the Qantas airline stewards abused us, and then pointed at us most of the flight.
    The woman in front did it out of spite, her 3 yo kid in front of me, had the seat kicked and moved back to where it was bearable. I have purchased knee defender and try to fly business for long flights since. It worth it, no more selfish bogans reclining into MY space.
    At least I can read book./magazine, watch TV and not get a sore back ( and really bad posture) from a seat pushed back and trying to read with my arms in the air.

    Its about time airlines ( Qantas ) defended the right of the person whose small amount of space is invaded by a seat back, where you cannot read, get up, and are jammed into a corner by a selfish seat invader.. or the need to change the seats so they cannot recline.. or have certain rows that can.. like exit row seats.. hey they could make extra money for “recline rows”.

  • Law of attraction much? You create your own reality. Perhaps believing you’ll get tons of room next time and see what happens.

  • How about :

    recline rows
    xl rows
    xxl rows
    thin rows
    very thin rows

    let’s not forget average rows

    and “cages” at boarding so that you “qualify” by being “measured” for the actual space that you paid for !!

    I hope Michael O’Leary, Ryanair, gets some ideas from here !!

  • I’ve walked away from domestic flights with bruised knees because people can’t sit straight for 2-3 hours. The major problem that short people don’t realise is the seat pockets have a steel rim and once a chair is reclined that steel bar digs straight in, so tight you can’t even shift. That’s horrid to do to another person and sorry but my company aren’t willing to upgrade me to busines. So please consider the person behind you.

  • Regardless of their views on the topic, perhaps your readers should show a little compassion (especially those suggesting that you do) to their fellow travellers when they have the benefit of sitting behind a computer screen.

  • Get over yourself Christine. If a seat is made to recline then the person who purchased that particular seat has the right to do so. Just the same as you do with yours. Holding yourself to a loftier standard by choosing not to recline does not give you the right to complain or expect others to follow your ridiculous “in-flight etiquette”.

  • As a FIFO worker this is one of my biggest hates on a flight. Due to the company I work for paying for the flights I can’t just upgrade. And at the end of the day shouldn’t have to. Should you have to upgrade because you are one of the very few that actually want to use the recline function in the middle of the day? Just paying for a an exit row or front row with more room, again not always an option as they are not always available and it is not always possible with a company paying for your flights. As much as I can, I always pick an exit or front row so noone can recline on me.

    Personally I think the recline functionality should be on a time lock. Any flights departing between 8am and 5pm that are under 5hrs in duration should not have reclining seats. most people are normally awake during these hours and should be able to sit upright for that length of time. Any flights that are under 1.5hrs shouldn’t have a reclining function period. Even after a week or so on site with little to no sleep, a sore back from bad beds and working 12hr days 7 days a week I can manage the 1.25hr flight back to the real world and then the 4hr flight back to home, without needing to recline. yes it is very uncomfortable and yes it can even be painful at times, but everyone is uncomfortable, why should I make someone else behind me even more uncomfortable just so I can stretch out? That’s the thing that really gets me about it. no consideration for anyone else from the recliner. The recliners usual argument is “I’m not comfortable and I can recline so I will, and screw the person behind me. if they don’t like it then they can recline and screw the person behind them.” As is displayed by nearly every comment on this by the recliners.

    I Have tried asking politely if they could sit up a little bit or not recline at all and more often than not I am met with either utter rudeness in one form or another or just ignored. The final straw was some old bat ripping me a new one because she had spent the last 3weeks on holidays in bali and had been on the redeye connection prior so she “had” to recline to get some sleep. Little did she know she wast talking to some who had just spent the last 17days straight working 12+hrs a day and getting stuff all sleep. Let’s just say that she didn’t get any sleep on that flight. Admittedly that kind of behavior is far more common on the budget airlines. As is the “it’s my right to recline” attitude. So much so that I refuse to fly the budget airlines any more.

    That said here is a couple of tips I have learned from flying every few days or so over the last few years.

    Don’t fly budget airlines. You really do get what you pay for. It is FAR more common to encounter a bad mannered bogan on a budget airline than on an ever so slightly more expensive airline. I know you were on Qantas this time and you will still get them on there, but less likely.

    When you book your flight pick your seat straight away. Get an exit or front row and you not only get more room but no recliners! If you can’t get one of them get the very back row or a seat that backs onto a toilet or service bay. That means that if you do get a recliner in front of you, you can also recline without feeling bad about the person behind because there isn’t one. This is not ideal for a number of reasons, but it is a good compromise.

    Book your flight as far in advance as humanly possible. This way you are far more likely to get a good seat.

    If you have to fly a budget airline, don’t be tight, pay the extra 25 bucks for the better seat. It’s worth it! With the budget airlines the front few rows are often reserved as “extra cost” so even if you don’t get a front or exit row these are still a better choice as the tight arse bogans with no regards to your comfort are often to tight to pay for these seats. This means most of these seats are taken by frequent flyers, meaning the vast majority of them don’t recline.

    If you fly even semi regularly, join your airline of choices loyalty program. This gives you a host of benifits the big one being that you get seating priority, meaning you can pic better seats sooner than the rest of the people that don’t have the membership. Even the lowest ranked members get this benefit to some degree.

    I am actually quite surprised to see the comments so heavily weighed in the reclining favour. I know amongst FIFO workers this is a real bone of contention. Most FIFO workers despise recliers and a lot of people I know that seldom fly also hate recliners, especially on sub 2hr flights.

  • I too travel mainly for work and just do not get this attitude that ‘I purchased the seat so I can do what I want, stuff everyone else’. Just because the seat reclines doesn’t mean you have to do so. As a government employee there is no way they would upgrade me to business class so I am stuck with economy hoping I don’t get someone in front of me fully reclined for the duration of the trip. I often need to be able to do some prep work for meetings if possible while travelling but it is impossible to even read my epad with seat in front of me fully reclined. I rarely bother speaking to a recliner anymore as the response is usually to ignore me. My approach now is to share my discomfort with the recliner in operating my tray table and anything else attached to the back of their seat frequently throughout the flight. I push their seat forward at mealtimes if they haven’t done so – revenge is sweet.

  • I love the arguments that if you want more personal space then upgrade. Wouldn’t we all be flying first class if we could afford it?

    I am particularly tall for a woman; 6′ to be exact. Which means that the ‘average’ is skewed since women’s torsos are different from men’s and our legs are a greater part of that height. When I sit down my knees are already wedged into the seat in front of me; when someone tries to recline they meet resistance, not because I’ve placed something into play to artificially eliminate that space but because my body is in the way. As mightily as they try, my legs simply refuse to fold up into my body. Am I really supposed to pay for a more expensive ticket so that the person in front of me does not have to deal with my height and the resulting space it requires?

    Add to that a serious knee injury and every little push trying to force me to comply is painful. But it’s evident that those who feel it is their RIGHT will push and push for all they are worth; without regard to the people around them. I’m sad my children are of the generation that feels so entitled. I’m sad for all of us that some people feel so entitled. See, there was a reason that giving out all Blue Ribbons was a bad idea…I just knew it!!

    • Well said. I’m also a 6ft female, my legs are the same length as my partner, who is 6’7. It hurts, there isn’t enough room for people to recline but they continue to do so anyway. The upgrade argument is ridiculous, if I could afford business I would choose it every time, if my work was willing to pay for business, I would choose it every time – but I don’t have that choice, like I don’t have a choice in being tall but recliners, you do have a choice, a choice to be considerate of others.

  • Gosh, I didn’t think reclining or not reclining was such a contentious issue! Headed over here after your link on Aussie Bloggers as I was intrigued to see what people had to say.

    Having only been overseas as an adult once in my life (and as a child I only went where my mother went to work – so not anywhere that even had full size planes – we sat right behind the pilot) I have no opinion on this subject and was fascinated to discover it’s so divisive! Plus I don’t take up much room, despite my height, so I can’t say I had any issues with people reclining or not reclining on the flight. I do recall wondering if I was supposed to recline or not.

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