Please Return Your Seat Backs to Their…

So, while we were traveling to and from the east coast for the surprise party for my brother and sister-in-law, each of the four planes we flew on was full.  Actually, each of the four planes we flew on was late because of mechanical failure, which doesn’t make me feel very good about the state of United Airlines’ fleet.

Call me unlucky, but on each leg of my journey, as soon as they were able, the person in front of me reclined their seat all the way back as far as it could go for the duration of the flight.  The Beloved was spared this on one flight because the person in front of her’s seat was broken.  How do I know?  Because she wrestled with it for several minutes and then called a flight attendant over to wrestle with it for a few more and then demanded some sort of “inconvenience compensation form” because she’d been forced to sit up straight for a few hours.


With the decrease in legroom apparent on just about every flight I’ve been on recently, putting the seat back essentially means that the person behind you had no room to move or work or read.  Because of this (and thinking about The Golden Rule), I never put my seat back.  Also, I think that 12 years of Catholic education taught me how to sit up straight for a couple of hours.

What about you?  Seat back?  Seat straight?  Should I just let it go?

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41 thoughts on “Please Return Your Seat Backs to Their…

  1. Major pet peeve of mine – I'm 6' 5", and in the 'cheap' seats, I'm a snug fit when they're not reclining. When they are, I either have to spread 'em, or put my knees together to the right or left, and if I'm in the B seat that's a problem. Reclining on an airplane, is rude, period, unless you've looked behind you and found an empty seat or a really small person.

  2. As a wee bit of a person, I have never had trouble with people reclining in front of me, I still have plenty of legroom. I didn't even really think about it for my first few years of flying. Also, as a chronically tired person, I'll always take the opportunity for a nap.
    Then I got a long-legged travelling buddy and realized what an issue it could be for him. So – I guess now I try to strike a middle ground – lean my seat back part way, enough for me to sleep, but trying to squash the person behind me as little as possible. This is mostly from an international flight perspective, though – when there's usually much more room.
    One option might be to always try to score seats against the bulkhead, where no one can lean their seats back in front of you?

  3. My worst experience with seat reclination (a word I, perhaps, just made up) came on my return flight from South Africa, complete with layover on the Canary Islands for refuel. The gentleman (jackass) in front of me put his seat back at any permissible moment. My knees touched the seat before he leaned back. Needless to say I was absolutely miffed. In the middle of my flight, my glasses fell off and ended up trampled in the aisle (not his fault) but that was the last straw. When a meal came and I needed room to eat I asked him for a break and he condescendingly asked "how long?" I yelled at him for a bit. That felt good, though I'm sure I could have murdered him and felt just fine.

  4. Same here, I think it's inconsiderate to put my seat back – but I also think it's the responsibility of the airlines to fix this dilemma. After all, who could sit upright for a super long flight?

  5. Oh geez. The first few times I flew I didn't put it back because a) it took me at least two flights to figure out you COULD recline, and b) I was afraid it'd be rude. But now I've never been on a flight where everyone around me wasn't reclining, so I just go ahead and do the same. I figure if the people in front of and behind me are reclining, I might as well. But when I fly Southwest, I ALWAYS do whatever I can to snag a seat in the very front row, even if it's a middle seat. There's no tray table, but SWEET MERCY THE LEG ROOM!

  6. I'm gonna (cunningly) remain neutral, but I tell you what I wonder about. The world is full of different people and some recline their chairs and some don't. But have you ever had somebody jam a dining tray into your back?? Of course, you have. Everybody has. So what I want to know is why the people who have had a dining tray jammed into their back do it? You know. Jam their dining tray into other people's back. Here's another one. Did you know that the overhead lockers are designed to withstand the force of being slammed shut at supersonic! speeds (about 186,000 lbs per square inch) — because that's the way people apparently think they have to be closed — because everybody else does. Of course you do: that annoying BANG. But did you know that they don't have to be? They can also be closed gently like any other bloody thing that latches? So if everybody's heard that annoying SLAM!!, why does anybody do it. Answer is: people don't connect the things that annoy them with…what they do. Here's the kicker. You know what you can do to teach everybody in the world to stop being so damned stupidly annoying? Not a thing. But don't despair: there is something you can do about it. It's not easy. It's a Zen thing. Accept it: "people suck." Have a care and take pity on ourselves.[OK, OK, I admit it: I travel by train or, preferably, not at all. :)]

  7. reclining like that really pisses me off too…and it's usually some arrogant prick with a giant sense of entitlement at the expense of others who's doing it.

  8. I think it's funny that I read this post in the Phoenix airport. The flight I took from Portland to Phoenix I didn't really recline. It was a fairly empty flight and I just layed across the 2 empty chairs next to me. The next leg of my flight I wasn't so lucky. Because I was conscious of the reclination issue I didn't recline at first but it was the red eye and everyone was sleeping. I bit the bullet and decided to recline… and slept pretty well.So ultimately, I think for me, it depends on a bunch of circumstances.

  9. I usually don't recline just because I don't think about it. The times I do feel like reclining I look behind to see who I'll be affecting. If it looks like it might be an issue, I either don't do it or I ask the person behind me if they mind, and let them know that if it's a problem they should let me know and I'll put it back upright. People are willing to talk to the folks next to them on the airplane, but they act surprised when someone from a row forward/back speaks to them through the invisible barrier that is the airplane row. When I do ask, most folks are mildly surprised, but either really don't care or are happy to oblige me (especially because I gave them consideration before slamming my chair into their knees).

  10. I am not an experienced flier having done it only a few times. However I think people can be put into two categories. A) People who do not give a rat's ass about anybody but themselves. Really there is nothing that can be done about them. They don't care about you and your discomfort. B) People who have no awareness about the people around them. If the situation does not bother them directly it just does not occur to them that what they are doing may be effecting somebody else. Last year my family and I flew to Florida. Our seats were scattered and J ended up sitting behind me. I sat next to a lady who was traveling alone with 3 boys under the age of 6. The lady was constantly up and down and in and out of her seat tending to the boys. While her seat was semi-upright the man sitting directly behind her and next to J took the brunt of her activity.J said he was pissed. The lady had no clue as she continued to jump up and then plop back down throughout the flight. It should be noted that man sitting next to my daughter was a lovely man. When J got sick he tended to her.

  11. I normally keep my seat upright unless I'm going to take a nap (which I virtually never do). And whether the person in front of me reclines or not, there's not enough leg room! That's what I get for being 5'9" and having long legs.

  12. I am not a recliner. I think the reclining feature was fine until they squished the seats together closer to add some more rows. I'm really short and don't need a lot of space. I'm grateful for this on planes, in auditoriums, and occasionally bathroom stalls.

  13. Eh, I think it's a useless cause… you can't put the ability to recline in an incredibly uncomfortable seat, and expect people not to recline. It's just that everyone has to recline. I feel bad for my honey who's 6'3" and just wants to cry on flights. However, on the flip side, I'm a shortie, and I always get people taking up my space (armrest, putting their legs on my side, etc.) because they think that's OK. It's not. You get your space, that's it. After having flew Delta to Europe, I'm going to seriously consider going business class on international flights, even if it's really expensive.

  14. Mark — I think that's my take — if there's no one, or a kid, behind me I might do it — though frankly it doesn't make me that much more comfortable. Maybe if I'm in a window and trying to take a nap, but that's about it.

  15. jacolily — also — the rows used to be further apart. I don't think it was nearly this tough 10 years ago when I was flying in and out of Chicago a lot.

  16. koan — I totally agree with the overhead compartment thing! WHAM WHAM WHAM!!! I think people get the idea b/c of the way flight attendants close them on their way up the aisles before take-off. As for human nature, we decided there were two types of travelers — ones that put their own comforts first, and ones that put the overall comfort of those around them first.

  17. Anyone — i once flew back from Paris and had a whole row to put the armrests up and stretch out and snooze — it was one of the best flights I ever had… ;)

  18. Ellie === it never used to be that much of a problem because the rows were farther apart than they used to be — you used to be able to sit, move and even work on a laptop with the seat in front of you back — not so much on a lot of airlines. Of course, United would let you "upgrade" to Economy Plus — which has more legroom — for a mere $69 more.

  19. bec — as Ross said in his comment — civility can go a long way. And I agree — there are so many self-absorbed people that it never seems to dawn on them that their actions affect others. Amazing.

  20. QofB — I really don't know how folks over 6-foot do it in these planes anymore (I'm 6-foot and my knees practically touch the seat in front of me if it's forward all the way…)

  21. gunderson — you're absolutely right — this wasn't really an issue a decade or so ago when rows were farther apart — you could actually move, eat and work in a seat with the seat in front of you back.

  22. Hapa — i hadn't thought about the smaller person's space being "up for grabs" — hey you're not using it, right? I DO like when the Beloved and I are flying together we can put the armrest up and share the space of the two seats.I once did business in Japan — going over I had business class — coming back I had economy — oof no comparison!

  23. (I'm 6-foot and my knees practically touch the seat in front of me if it's forward all the way…) Mine, too. These seats were obviously designed for people like my husband who is 5'7" and has shorter than average legs. He has no problem on planes! 8:-)

  24. I'm a latecomer to the commenting party.
    I usually look at who is behind me. If it's a small woman (or man), I'll recline a bit. I have a pinched nerve in my back and it really acts up on airline flights when I sit straight. I fly southwest a lot (open seating) so I look for seats in front of babies or kids with tiny legs because I don't think it's that rude to recline in front of them. I don't really mind the crying — always carry earplugs and I have fairly good happy-baby luck. But if it's a tall person, I try and be considerate. My legs are really short so I don't mind when people recline in front of me.

  25. Steve,You appear to have hit a nerve. But why is there such a level of downright rage about this topic [1]? At the risk of being branded the lone lunatic on the topic, may I offer a couple of facts to the discussion?The quality of travel varies widely from airline to airline, as does the amount of room allowed each passenger. The most common guide is the “seat pitch” – the distance between the back of the bottom of the seat in front and the back of your seat. This ranges from 29” to 34” [2]. In general, a larger eat pitch is more comfortable.Reclining your seat doesn’t decrease the seat pitch for the person behind you, but it does reduce the amount of personal space they have. The primary result is to make it more difficult for the person to use their laptop or to use the tray table. Again, the amount of recline varies by airline. It also varies throughout the plane and by plane type. Your ticket will tell you what plane type you will be flying, but you should go to a traveler's information site to get the exact amount of space in each seat.Though there are some tactics for preventing people from reclining their seats, using them is likely to make a bad situation worse. The person reclining has the right to do so; it he did not, then the seat would have been made so that they cannot recline (as is the case for exit rows). This is similar to trying to keep people in window seats from looking out the window during the flight, just so that you can watch the movie – it pretends that the person exercising their right is the bad guy.In general, your best bet is to be prepared. Before booking your ticket, find out what the seats are like; SeatGuru is a great resource, and there are plenty of others on the web. If not having someone else recline is that important to you, then choose a seat behind the exit row or at the very front of the section [3]. Complaining to the attendant won’t help, as the person isn’t doing anything wrong and the attendant is typically overworked and underpaid. And using guerrilla tactics will only increase the odds that we will see you on TV someday as the lead item in the news.Common courtesy is important in travel, and it doesn’t mean “making the other person do whatever it takes to make me more comfortable”. Courtesy means remembering that the other person has rights, too, such as driving 40 in the slow lane, wearing loud T-shirts, and reclining his seat during the flight. If you can’t understand that, then perhaps it is best if you do stay home, as you are clearly not fit to go out in public.John [1] My suspicion is that people get upset about this because they equate it to the generally crappy level of service now associated with air travel. The slow squeezing away of personal space and ability to do anything is an apt metaphor for the shift from the era of “Where would you like to go today?” to that of “Be glad you’ve got a seat!”. Honestly, though, I get more upset about those folks who take up their seat and half of mine when they fly – now that’s an invasion of personal space![2] One of the reasons that people like Southwest is that they have a seat pitch of 33”, near the top end of the range. Add that to their consistent level of service (it ain’t great, but it is consistent) and their low fares and you’ve explained why they are one of the most successful airlines in history.[3] Or pay extra to fly Business or First Class.

  26. I usually look at who is behind me. If it's a small woman (or man), I'll recline a bit. That would be me. :) We like our space too, and the back-tilters aren't much fun. BUT considering what I see my normal-sized counterparts go thru, I don't feel like I can complain. I can still sit cross-legged, like I was on the floor, like in yoga, and be MUCH more comfy, regardless of what someone's doing with the seat in front of me. The thing is… I"m not normal-sized. I'm little (not "little person", just smaller) The airlines have now made their ergonomics and chair functionings sized to people like me. I know the world is not like me (because I have my own challenges trying to fit in a world bigger than I am in general), so it must be a disconnect between money/seats per flight and common sense.

  27. Great answer — who knew there was so much out there about different seat configurations. I also like Southwest — that extra inch or two can make a big difference.And I agree that courtesy is important and that it's not our jobs to make others happy at the expense of ourselves. I look at the seat-back thing akin to public cell phone conversations. Absolutely folks have every right and can choose to speak loudly in a public space on their cell phones… should they? Not if they can help it.

  28. I pretty much always do a partial recline which is good for me but doesn't mess it up for anyone behind me.Just a few months ago I was seated in the last row where the seats couldn't recline at all. It wasn't very comfortable for me. Last year I was in the first row and had about 3 ft of leg room. I loved it but my wife hated it.

  29. I look at the seat-back thing akin to public cell phone conversations. Absolutely folks have every right and can choose to speak loudly in a public space on their cell phones… should they? Yes, they do. And you have every right to record their conversations in a public space. (Evil, ain't I?)John

  30. I'm sorry, this seems a little silly. The seats go back for a reason. I've spent more hours in airplanes than I would wish on anyone. Sure it's not the most comfortable arrangement ever. You can blame United, American, Southwest, or Virgin for fitting as many people on the plane as possible and making your ticket cheaper… or you can blame yourself for not buying a more expensive seat with more leg room. I would never blame the person in front of me for putting their chair back and I would never expect anyone to cross the Atlantic or Pacific with their chair in the full up-right position.

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