The Unspoken Etiquette Rules of Reclining Your Airplane Seat

Updated: Nov. 04, 2022

How you recline makes all the difference.

After making it to your flight and settling into your seat after stowing away your carry-on, you’re about to watch a movie or read a book when the passenger in front of you reclines their seat. Suddenly, your already cramped economy seat has even less room than before and you can’t help but wonder: What’s the proper etiquette in reclining your seat on an airplane?

When to recline

Like figuring out who has control over the middle seat armrests, knowing the etiquette around reclining your seat is equally important. This isn’t too much of an issue in first class and business class where there’s ample room to recline, but what about for people who booked seats in economy? “Airline seats are designed to recline so it’s completely reasonable that passengers use that feature of their seat. However, how you recline makes all the difference,” says Lisa Orr, an etiquette and protocol consultant.

There are a few rules passengers should follow when making the decision whether or not to recline their seat. “First, if you plan to recline you should try to do so shortly after takeoff so that the passenger behind you isn’t surprised mid-flight,” explains Orr. “Second, regardless of your timing, you should look back before you recline to check for hot beverages or laptops. If there is anything that could be high risk you should turn around and let them know you’re putting your seat back so they can hold on to anything that might spill.” Here are a few more things polite people never do on airplanes.

Now that you know when to recline, knowing how long you’ll be in the air also plays a key part in whether or not you should recline your seat. “For red-eye or overseas flights, where it is presumed you will at least attempt to sleep, then reclining will be the norm,” says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “For quick commuter trips of less than two hours, then the norm is to remain in the upright position.”

If your flight serves food, then there are a few rules to follow before, during, and after eating as well. “As people are always eating at different times during a flight this can be tricky to coordinate, but as a general rule it’s nearly impossible to eat a meal while you are reclined so you should have your seat at least partially upright during a meal,” says Orr. “When the meal is finished if you decide to recline again make sure to look first, notify the passenger behind you if necessary, and then move it back carefully.”

Always be polite

However, what if you feel like the person in front of you has reclined just a little too far? “Politeness is the key,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Requesting a favor from the person in front of you requires the proper tone of voice and a genuine request for help. Avoid acting frustrated or behaving aggressively. You can always ask a flight attendant for assistance as well.”

There’s still a chance that the person could always say no and reject your request. Airplane seats are made to recline, after all. “If you feel you must ask because you have some issue that is going to make a reclined seat a huge problem for you during the flight, you could ask, but you should ask knowing that it is totally reasonable for them to decline and be prepared to very graciously accept their no,” says Orr. But, regardless of seat reclining, these are the 18 things you should never do on an airplane.

Likewise, if you recline your seat and someone behind you speaks up, there’s probably a good reason for it. “It’s not worth getting into an argument on the flight,” says Gottsman. “Oblige the request in most circumstances. There is a reason that person is asking you to push up your seat and you should have looked backward, to check out the situation before leaning back anyways.”

In the end, we’re all passengers on a plane flying through the air to get to our destination. “Airplanes these days are tight, and a bit of consideration can go a long way in making everyone more comfortable,” says Smith. “Before I board a plan, with all of the annoyance and indignities, I remind myself that I will be in a chair, in the sky and how much faster it will be than other modes of transportation.  A bit of perspective can shift your attitude towards the positive.” Next, make sure you know these little etiquette rules for flying on an airplane.