Airline passengers feud over reclining the seat. This is who is at fault.

Drag Race Delta

In a plane’s economy class cabin, airline passengers are feuding over the reclining seat. Some believe the recline is already built into the seat, therefore a passenger can recline, while others believe it’s incredibly rude to recline your seat, whether it’s an option or not. So, the question is: Is it OK to recline your seat on an airplane?

As passengers continue to argue over who’s right and who’s wrong, no one is pointing their finger at the real culprit: the airline.

Airlines have been shrinking economy class cabins to squeeze in more seats for decades. In just the past 20 years, the average economy seat went from 18.5 inches in width to an average 17 inches today. Pitch, the space between a seat and the seat in front of it, has gone from 35 inches to a whopping 30 to 31 inches, and some seats have as little as 28 inches.

American Airlines and United’s average seat pitch is 31 inches, while Delta is a measly 30 inches. Southwest and JetBlue are the largest with an average 32 to 33 inches.

Aboard American Airlines Embraer RJ-190.

The harsh reality? Economy class seats are shrinking, while the recline has never changed. What this means is that while it may have been comfortable to sit with the passenger in front of you reclining their seat back in the early 2000s, you now have up to five inches less space between you. When the passenger in front reclines their seat, it will most likely be right in your face.

Airlines have done nothing to better this situation. In fact, there’s not much they will do (imagine the outrage if they deleted the recline button on all seats!). They prefer your profit over your comfort, so there’s no way they’ll be introducing new planes with more pitch in economy. The dreaded shrinking seat is here to stay.

So should you recline your seat on an airplane or allow the passenger in front to hijack your space? Here’s what you should know.

What should you do if you want to recline your seat on an airplane?

1. Politely ask the passenger behind you if it’s OK.

Some publications give you specific rules, but it’s probably best you don’t listen. For instance, Washington Post says “don’t recline when the person behind you is tall.” That’s polite, but it’s not your fault the person booked behind you happened to be tall. You shouldn’t have to make decisions based on situations you couldn’t predict.

“The proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s OK first,” Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, told CNBC.

That should be the golden rule if you want to avoid conflict. This way, you’re aware of your passenger, you’re going out of your way to be polite and you don’t have to second guess whether they are uncomfortable or not. Also, that person probably won’t punch your seat throughout the flight if you’re cordial.

American Embraer RJ-190. Small plane!

2. Be a badass.

Listen. Despite the shrinking seat, you paid for your seat, and all seats for now come with a standard recline. Even though there is very little space between your seat and the seat in front of you, it’s not your fault the passenger behind you didn’t book premium economy if they are tall. Or need to work on their laptop. Or have a baby on their lap. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and you shouldn’t be denied your seat recline because they assumed you wouldn’t recline, right?

If you really want to be a badass and super independent, by all means, you do you. Recline your seat! If the passenger behind you starts punching your seat, tell the flight attendant you’re behind harassed. Honestly, this is the last resort, and we suggest you go with No. 1, but being a badass is an option (just be prepared for No. 4 below).

3. Ask yourself: Will it really bring me comfort?

Do you really need that extra inch of recline? Ask yourself if reclining your seat will really make a difference in your level of comfort. Maybe you need a pillow for lumbar support instead. Maybe you need to take off your shoes and wiggle your toes. Maybe you need a drink.

Flying is uncomfortable, and modern comforts in economy class have been stripped from passengers, so they maximize any possibility to get as snug as they can in that seat. But, perhaps out of habit, they recline when they really don’t need to.

Obviously, this is different for every route, and it makes more sense to recline on long-haul flights, but ask yourself on your next flight whether it’s even worth reclining. At least you know the passenger behind you will be thankful.

What if the passenger in front of you reclines their seat, hijacking your space? 

1. Graciously accept it.

Look. You booked economy. If the space between your seat and the front seat was really going to be an issue, you should have booked premium economy for an extra 20 bucks. You can’t get angry about it. Every damn seat reclines, and going into the flight, you 1000 percent knew there was a 50/50 chance a recliner in front of you was going to happen. Grin and bear it and bat your eyelashes. Maybe order that drink.

2. Ask the passenger if he can sit straight for a short time.

If you’re having a meal or working on your laptop, it’s fine if you ask the passenger in front if you can have a little time to use your tray table. They will most likely be polite about this, and if you’re polite about it, they may just forget that their seat is up and keep it up the rest of the flight. Everyone wins!

3. Fly Premium Economy or Business Class.

If you absolutely need space, upgrade to premium economy or business class. Not only will you get more space, you’ll never be bothered by the person in front of you.

Flying premium economy and business via discount/little miles is a lot easier than you would think. In fact, we have constantly given tips on how you can realistically get upgraded without spending a cent. So, you have no excuse.

First class on Delta

4. Don’t freak out. You’re being filmed.

No one ever won an award for best public freak out on a plane. We live in the Golden Age of passenger shaming, so be on your best behavior. Your seat mates will appreciate it. Order that drink and listen to GWAR. Today, there will be a tomorrow, that will be the yesterday of soon.

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Jimmy Im has traveled to 113 countries, stayed in over 600 hotels and has flown a million airmiles. He lives in New York City.

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