The Big Airplane Seat Recline Debate – Who Is Right?

During the last few days an intense debate has been raging inside the pages of major world newspapers and on social media: do you have the right to recline your seat on board an airplane, or is it inconsiderate towards the person seated behind you?

On board argument

The debate erupted after an unusual story about a fight on board an American Airlines flight hit the papers. It might sound like a small story (I absolutely think it is!) – but the tale has since featured in such quality media outlets as the New York Times, CNN and The Guardian, so it is hard to ignore.


The story is basically as followed. The woman (Wendi Williams) reportedly reclined her seat back, after which the man seated behind her got angry and continuously started to hit her seat.

The flight attendants eventually got involved to mediate in the fight between the two passengers – which was complicated by the fact that Williams started to record the entire situation on video as the airline employees demanded Williams to delete her footage (many airline forbid taping or photographing flight attendants or other passengers out of privacy reasons).

How the exact story ended is a bit unclear. Some local media reported that American Airlines actually issued a disturbance report against Ms Williams and threatened to remove her from the flight. Ms Williams in turn allegedly wants to press charges for assault against the man in the seat behind her and wants the flight attendant who handled the situation fired.


Although I couldn’t care less about this entire drama being played out in the skies (personally it seems both passengers were wrong to some extent and could for sure acted more mature) the debate triggered by this incident is interesting.

Social media basically seems divided in two camps. Some take the side of Ms Williams and say that any passenger has the right to recline their seat. After all, you paid for your seat, and the recline function wasn’t installed just for fun!

Others say that it is inconsiderate to recline your seat as you are restricting the space of others. They point that the man seated behind Ms Williams cannot fully recline his own seat being seated in front of a bulkhead, which would clearly limit his space. They also point out that reclining back can be especially hard for tall people or passengers of size.

wizz air a321 seats airplane seat recline
Legroom is already limited on board many airlines – and reclining your seat can make the experience more miserable for the person behind you. ©Paliparan

My take

Even though I’m firmly on the side of those who hate people reclining their seats into you (I also think it is highly annoying) – I do have to admit that of course any passenger has the right to recline their seat. If the seat has a recline function, you have the full right to recline your seat. Period. The fact that some passengers, including myself, hate this doesn’t change this fact.

There is however one thing which I really need to say about this all. Just like in many other situations in society, I think that basic courtesy and civility are sorely missed nowadays. A lot of situations like the one of Ms Williams on the American Airlines flight could easily be prevented in most cases if passengers would act a bit more mature and would take other people into account.

Meal time

First of all the no-brainer: you simply do not recline during meal time. If you have reclined your seat already, put it back in the upright position if a meal is served. It can be really hard to eat a meal if you are seated in economy and the person in front of you reclines. It is common courtesy to give the passenger behind you space if it is mealtime.


If you do again recline your seat, make sure that you do it slowly and gently. Even better: try to look over your shoulder and make eye-contact with the person seated behind you. Perhaps even politely say that you are about to recline your seat and you hope this is fine for the person behind you.

This is important for one single reason: the person seated behind you might have a drink on his tray table or might be doing some work on his laptop. Smashing your seat back could easily spill over a drink or damage a laptop. It happened twice to me that I was working on my laptop and an inconsiderate seat recliner smashed his seat back into my laptop (fortunately without causing damage).

I understand that some people want to recline their seat and they have the full right doing so – but if they would do it gently and acknowledge me first would really be appreciated.

China airlines economy seat
Economy seats on the China Airlines Airbus A350. ©Paliparan


What is your take on the seat reclining debate? Are you a firm seat recliner this being the first thing you do after the fasten seatbelt sign is switched off? Or do you absolutely detest such behaviour? Feel free to share your thoughts on this discussion!

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Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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