The Recline of the West?


To recline or not to recline? Robert Mannion asks why there isn’t a better way to resolve a flier’s dilemma than punching the seat in front of you.

The image is almost as unpleasant as the reality. With short, controlled jabs, an angry man remorselessly punches the airline seat in front of him. His eyes bulge with anger behind his glasses. The woman on the receiving end appears in a video that went viral this week only as her head rocks with each impact. She holds up her phone to record her assailant’s blows. Neither of them speaks but they’re bound by an almost tangible antipathy.

For a viewer, the interaction is compellingly sharp and weird. It also shows how widely the feelings of both parties are shared, and how as a community of air travellers we’ve somehow failed to reach a consensus on something quite basic that causes widespread angst.

Commenters on both sides have piled in. Reclining is inconsiderate to the person behind you. No, say others, the point of having a recline button is to use it.

The punching man was at the very back of the plane, so he had no option to also recline. One commentator suggested the row in front of his shouldn’t have reclined either. But that logic would soon cascade the length of the plane, as each row deferred to the one behind it. The Guardian newspaper pondered the conflict as a failure of capitalism. And perhaps it had a point, as airlines seem oddly shy of providing guidance.

I entered, “is it OK to recline your seat?” on the websites of a few major carriers and got information about upgrades and deals but not a peep on this key, and at times bitterly contested, question of etiquette.

Admittedly, it was a quick search. But you’d expect airlines to communicate on this point clearly. Although maybe they also have a dilemma. As passenger space tightens, reclining carries a higher inconvenience cost. Yet airlines might shrink at telling their customers they can’t use the recline button unless there’s no one behind them.

One executive, the CEO of Delta, waded in, saying he didn’t recline himself but believed people had the right to do so. But this only confirms the ambivalence: it’s like saying, “Yes you have a right to recline, but only boors would do so”.

Often, we just need to talk to resolve disputes. But we also need an agreed code of behaviour. In this instance fliers seem to have been left adrift. Maybe airlines will agree and propose a code. Or maybe we’ll all just have to punch and suffer until a clear consensus emerges.