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You've Got to Fight For Your Right to Recline on Airplanes

You've Got to Fight For Your Right to Recline on Airplanes

Is it acceptable to recline your seat on a plane? (Thinkstock)

The debate over whether it’s acceptable for air passengers to recline their seats has been dividing frequent flyers for years. So perhaps it was inevitable that it would get physical.

You’ve probably heard of a scuffle that broke out this weekend on board a United Airlines flight between two passengers who were debating that very point. The Associated Press reports a female passenger tried to recline her seat, only to be blocked by the guy behind her who had what’s called a “Knee Defender” — a $22 device, banned on United and most other major U.S. carriers, you clip on the seat in front of you to prevent it from reclining.

United reclined seat debate

A United flight got diverted after two passengers got into a scuffle over a reclined seat (Photo: AP)

The ensuing argument got heated: flight attendant’s orders were ignored (allegedly by the male passenger), drinks were thrown (allegedly by the female passenger).  Eventually, the plane was diverted to Chicago and the two combatants were ushered off, though no arrests were made.

The story has been a call to arms for the anti-recline crowd, who’ve taken to Twitter to rally against the evil recliners:

twitter comment about united seat debate

twitter united seat

twitter outrage about united seat incident

the twitter community sounds off

"Sociopaths?" "Satanists?" It’s time to stop the madness and defend the recliners.

Look, no one has to tell me that airplanes are extremely cramped. We all know airlines have been trying every which way to cram as many passengers onto airplanes as possible;  one airplane manufacturer is actually researching ways to eliminate seats altogether in favor of bench-like contraptions.  So it’s no wonder desperate passengers have taken to guarding their personal space with $22 Iron Domes for their knees.

Related: Check Out These (Possible) New Airplane Seats

knee defenders not allowed on some planes

Knee Defenders — which you clip on seats to keep them from reclining — are not allowed on most major U.S. carriers (Photo: Knee Defender)

But there’s a reason airlines ban Knee Defender-like devices. Simply put, as long as seats can recline, passengers should have every right to recline them. While, as a 6’2” man, I’m sympathetic to those for whom a reclined coach seat in front of them is another circle of aerial hell, I occasionally recline my seat — especially when I’m desperate for sleep. If a fellow passenger were ever to ask me not to recline, I’d certainly be receptive. Heck, I’d probably honor the request; my cooperation can easily be gained by a nice smile, a pleasant demeanor and/or a vodka soda.

WATCH: Ban Reclining Seats on Planes? 

But at the end of the day, the ultimate decision to recline or not to recline belongs to the seat holder.  And that decision shouldn’t be forced by some device someone uses to impose his or her will on a fellow passenger. Where does it stop? If you’re watching a racy scene on “Game of Thrones” on your iPad during the flight, does your prudish seat mate have the right to throw a SkyMall magazine over your screen? If you’re sitting by the window, does the guy next to you in the aisle have the right to put up some sort of blocker to keep you from climbing over him to go to the bathroom? I don’t like people talking on cell phones in quiet restaurants — I guess it’s okay for me to walk around with a signal jammer in my pocket.

reclining on a plane is it ok

Recliners vs. Anti-Recliners: Who’s right? (Thinkstock)

And I know the arguments from the anti-recline crowd: “But I have long legs,” or “I have to work on my laptop.” All valid concerns. But so are “I’m exhausted and I need sleep,” and “I have a bad back” and all the other arguments you hear from the pro-recliners. Who’s right? There’s no right answer. But in the case of a tie, I’m inclined to go with the one who’s simply exercising a feature that’s been available on just about every airplane since the Wright Brothers’ (who, I believe, also reclined).

The Wright Brothers: the original recliners (Photo: AP)  

The point is, there are certain inconveniences we all have to deal with when we fly. So we should all do our best to make the going as easy as possible for our fellow passengers. Maybe switch seats so a family can sit together. Or turn off your reading light so your seat mate can sleep a little easier. And, yes, you can also choose not to recline your seat if not absolutely necessary. But at the end of the day, no one has a right to courtesy. Nor do we have a right to force someone’s discomfort to promote our own comfort.

Related: Travel Rant: How to Not Hate That Crying Baby on Your Plane

So to all those slamming this United passenger as a “sociopath” and “satanist” for defending her right to recline, I say: “Relax.” Maybe you’d all be a lot less cranky if you put your seats back and got some rest. 

Tell us what you think: Recline or not to recline. Vote in our poll and hit us with your comments below. 


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