Reclining Airplane Seats: Fliers Weigh in

1:28 PM, Nov 18, 2011   |    comments
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As co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th Edition, it's no surprise that manners maven Daniel Post Senning is reluctant to recline his airplane seat.

Yes, Emily's great-great grandson will occasionally lean back - but only if the person behind him already is reclined and sleeping. Lowering your seatback "may be your right, but it's like bringing a smelly Italian sub onboard: It's not always the best idea," says Senning, a frequent flier who puts reclining seats on equal footing with such potentially rancorous issues as who gets dibs on the middle-seat armrests and whether infants belong in first class.

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As co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th Edition, it's no surprise that manners maven Daniel Post Senning is reluctant to recline his airplane seat.

Two notable examples that led to people pushing back: In February 2010, a fellow passenger took a swing at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when Romney asked him to raise his seatback before takeoff. This spring, a seatback dust-up on a plane bound from Washington, D.C., to Ghana prompted the pilot to return to Dulles airport, escorted by F-16 fighters.

Senning, who says he's lucky to be "all of 5-8 on a tall day," has even offered to switch to a middle seat if a lanky seatmate is wedged behind a determined recliner: "In such close, cramped quarters, it's super important to be aware and considerate."

MORE: JetBlue Investigates after Passengers Were Stranded for 7 Hours

This weekend kicks off the busiest travel season of the year, with the Air Transport Association predicting 23.2 million Americans will fly over the Thanksgiving holiday. That forecast is down about 2% from last year, but officials say a reduced number of flights will make aircraft quarters closer than ever - and the "right to recline" debate even more relevant.

"Almost every trip I work these days has an issue with the seat recline," says Sara Keagle, a flight attendant who blogs about her job at TheFlyingPinto.com.

"Passengers are more stressed, and with full flights, people feel crammed. They've dealt with the anticipation of flying, parking, the TSA and gate agents ... and for some, the seatback being pushed into their lap is the straw that broke the camel's back."

To Austin-based technology salesman Scott Morris, who flies about 20 weeks a year, reclining is "a selfish act. I am 6-0, and it is too cramped to use my laptop if someone leans back. It bothers me to see someone slam their seat back into someone's knees, (and) when someone puts their seat back and cramps me up, I often find myself putting my knees in the back of their seat and banging on my laptop a little too hard." Reclining seats can be particularly nettlesome on long-haul flights, says Jami Counter, senior director at the seat review website SeatGuru.com.

Though food and service play a role, "when you're on a flight of 12-plus hours, having someone recline into your space really affects your overall perception of whether it was a good or bad trip," he says.

A few airlines have addressed the issue by installing slimmer coach seats with rigid, shell-like backs and cushions that slide forward a few inches, cutting down on legroom for taller passengers but preserving a sense of personal space.

Cathay Pacific's version has earned grumbles, but All Nippon Airways' 787 Dreamliner is winning early kudos for its own fixed-back offering.

Delta, JetBlue and United peddle a pricier "premium economy" class that features an extra 2 to 5 inches of legroom in coach, while low-fare carriers Allegiant, Ryanair and Spirit have gone the opposite direction with non-reclining seats. With only 28 inches of seat pitch (the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat behind), Spirit's "pre-reclined" seats on their new Airbus 320s "are just torture, even if you're short," says SeatGuru.com's Counter.

MORE: Spirit Airlines installs pre-reclined seats
But even the privileged in first class aren't immune to seatback misery, notes Ben Schlappig, who writes the One Mile at a Time blog at BoardingArea.com.

Earlier this month, a US Airways first-class passenger posted an in-flight screed on FlyerTalk.com about a fellow passenger who had responded to his reclined seat by blasting her air vent in his direction. Despite a flight attendant's attempts to soothe tempers, the hostilities continued - with FlyerTalk.com members adding their own spirited commentary.

When he's up front, Schlappig will "always look back when reclining to make sure it's okay with the person seated behind me," he writes. "I usually choose the last row, so I don't have to annoy anyone."

For Barry Maher, an author and speaker from Corona, Calif., "the real problem is not with the guy in front of you who reclines his seat, but with the airlines who crammed 40 rows of seats into a plane that can comfortably accommodate perhaps 35. It's much like when they started charging for checked bags, then complained about passengers filling up all space in the overhead bins. Don't complain to the poor guy in front of you who's crammed his 6-foot-3 body into a space that would cramp a Munchkin. Complain to the people who created and profit from that space.

"If passengers shouldn't be allowed to recline them, why do the seats recline? That's why the button was put on the arm of the seat," Maher adds. "And if you don't want to recline your seat, what do you do when the person in front of you reclines? Call a flight attendant? Start a fight?"

There is another, albeit controversial, option: the Knee Defender, a small plastic wedge that slips over your tray table and helps, according to the product's website, "defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn't care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be 'back there.' "

Though the $17.95 device has been banned by several airlines, 6-foot-1 inventor Ira Goldman says it's not illegal under FAA guidelines - and notes that Knee Defender instructions include a plea to "use only as needed" and "be polite to fellow passengers."

In fact, muses travel blogger Schlappig, why couldn't airlines add a "common courtesy" segment as part of their safety videos?

A good idea in theory, says flight attendant Keagle. But, she adds, "we have a lot of responsibility on the plane, and playing mediator shouldn't be one of them. Passengers need to be adults and solve the issue themselves."

USA Today

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