travel etiquette

On the airplane: do you have the right to recline?

Each Friday on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin, I have the pleasure of answering a travel question sent in by a reader. This week the topic was that age-old question:

Do passengers have a right to recline their seats on an airplane?

When Jeanne Gillert flies on an airplane, she rarely reclines her seatback “out of consideration for the passengers behind me.” But she’s sick and tired of other passengers who insist on reclining their seatbacks and ramming their seat into her knees.

Gillert, a program officer for a private family foundation in Tulsa, Okla., says she’s tried “gently pointing out to people that the reason they can’t move their seat back any more is because of my knees; not just that the chair is sticking.”

Sometimes that works. “Men usually get it, apologize and quit trying,” said Gillert. “Women on the other hand are horrible! One woman told me to sit up straighter, then got a stewardess to tell me it was her right to recline her seat into my knees and that I would just have to live with it or pay for a more expensive ticket in business.”

That answer doesn’t sit right with Gillert, who asked Overhead Bin, “Since when do we have the ‘right to recline?’ ”

Unless an airplane seat does not have a recline position — Allegiant, Ryanair and Spirit Airlines have entire planes with non-reclining seats — passengers do indeed have “the right to recline.” But issues clearly arise around if, when and how passengers choose to use the amenity.

Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute advises passengers who wish to recline to be sure to do it slowly. “You can also turn to the person behind you and give them a heads up that you’re going to push your seat back,” said Post. “Asking them if it’s OK is nice, but if they say ‘no,’ you have to be prepared to honor their wishes.”

If the person in front of you pushes their seat back quickly, there isn’t a tremendous amount you can do about, said Post. “The best you could do is tap them on the shoulder — although that’s a little much — and say something like, ‘Do you mind just giving me heads up next time?’ ”

When faced with a rude recliner, another option is to request to be moved to a new seat. However, with planes flying very full these days, that’s not always possible.

Some travelers make use of the downloadable “courtesy cards” offered by the creators of the controversial (and on some airlines, prohibited) Knee Defender, a small plastic device that limits how far a seat can be reclined. One version of the card requests that a passenger not recline their seat; the other informs them that you will be using your gadget.

Another defense is to study up on seat pitch (the distance from your seat to the seat in front you) before your flight. Many airlines post this information on their websites, and sites such as SeatGuru, SeatMaestro and SeatExpert post annotated airplane seat charts noting which seats have added legroom and which seats do not recline.

You also might seek out a flight on a plane sporting a new type of seat. On its first 787 airplane, ANA (All Nippon Airlines) equipped the economy cabin with seats that do not recline but instead have a seat cushion that pushes out a few inches.

Whatever you do, try to not get into an argument or over the reclining actions of another passenger. At the end of May 2010, an in-flight fist fight over a reclined seat ended with Air Force fighter jets escorting a Ghana-bound United Airlines flight back to Washington-Dulles International Airport.