Air travel is constantly changing. At the risk of dating myself, the first time I flew on a plane, it had a smoking section. Since then, new rules about what you can and can’t do during a flight have kept the experience of flying in a constant state of flux. But one thing the airlines still don’t regulate is seat etiquette, an issue which took center stage this week and has everyone asking: Should you recline your seat on an airplane?
It all started when a traveler reclined her seat during an American Airlines flight, provoking an extreme reaction from the man seated behind her. You’ve probably seen the video floating around, of a man punching the back of the woman’s seat. The full story seems to be that he asked her to put her seat up during meal service (acceptable) she did (good) then she reclined once again after the meal (still okay) and then he got angry and decided to get fisty about it (bad).
The right to recline
There’s no question that the incident in question was a no-no; an adult human should never resort to punching as a method of getting their needs met (except in the boxing ring, then it’s a-okay). What’s questionable is the spur of online debates the event has inspired, with everything from editorials on how reclining your seat is the worst thing in the world, to an endorsement from Ellen Degeneres saying that she stands with recliners.
Delta, in an attempt to anger everyone involved, came out saying that recliners should ask for permission before they put their seats back—but are airlines the ones that should be laying down the law when it comes to right versus wrong? These are the big shots who made the news in 2018 for forcibly removing a passenger from a flight in a manner reminiscent of a prison riot scenario. Self defence lessons should already be included in the safety manual.
To recline or not to recline
Last week’s drama is ongoing. The latest is that the woman is threatening to sue the airline over the incident, which only goes to show that the puncher wasn’t the only one on the plane that day prone to overreaction. The lawsuit, if it actually happens, could have unfortunate consequences for all travelers. Best case scenario, she wins a few dollars and we never hear of it again. Worst case scenario, airlines decide to answer the question of whether you should recline your seat once and for all, by taking away the option altogether.
The heyday of luxurious flights where everyone dressed to impress and the aisle was a catwalk from seat to stand-up piano lounge is already over. Do we really want flying to be as uncomfortable as taking an overbooked Greyhound bus with no air conditioning and a broken bathroom? Because it feels like that’s where we’re headed. Or perhaps we’re already there.
The truth is, we can’t trust the airlines to play referee between passengers, since they tend to make the call that ruins it for everybody. So it’s up to us, as travelers and as human beings, to act like rational adults. If the person in front of you reclines and you feel cramped, recline yourself. Voila! Now it’s just the same as if no one put their seat back in the first place. So the answer is yes, you should recline your seat on an airplane. because flying is uncomfortable enough already and that’s the whole purpose of that little button on the armrest. Just be considerate of the people around you. And maybe pack some boxing gloves in your carry-on.