The right to recline

With airplanes already packed with humans and often short on space, reclined seats push some passengers over the edge.
With airplanes already packed with humans and often short on space, reclined seats push some passengers over the edge.John Brecher /
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I once heard that 75 percent of all in-flight fights break out after one passenger reclines his seat into the tiny personal space of another. OK, I've also heard that 90 percent of all "statistics" are fabricated, but I tend to believe this one.

Here's how it usually happens.

A grumpy passenger, who happens to be over 6 feet tall and happens to have spent too much money on vacation, boards his return flight front to aft. He notices the first class seats, then the smaller business class seats, and sighs as he struggles into his pint-sized economy seat. He skews his long legs sideways, trying to suppress his irritation, and prays for an uneventful flight home. But shortly after take-off, the passenger in front of him reclines his seat practically into his lap. It's the last straw. After a couple of bumps on the invading seat back — some inadvertent, some deliberate — words get exchanged, and pretty soon there's an all-out brawl.

Who is right and who is wrong here?

Nobody knows. Certainly, the airlines are to blame for the ridiculous seat size, but when you ask what the rules are, you won't get a straight answer. Instead, what you get is the presumptive right to recline. After all, the airlines have provided the means to recline; indeed, they encourage it with the chipper announcement we have all come to dread: "We invite you to sit back and enjoy the rest of the flight."

One clever frequent flier has invented a solution to the passenger-in-your-lap problem. It's called the "Knee Defender," and it consists of two plastic clips that attach to your tray table, preventing the seat in front of you from reclining. The Knee Defender protects not only your knees, but also your drink and your laptop — common victims of a passenger's sudden decision to thrust his seat backward. It has several settings, so you can do a partial block, too — which is handy. After all, if the person in front of you can't recline his seat at all, he will probably get suspicious, but if he can only recline partway, you will probably get away with it.

Unfortunately, some airlines have forbidden the use of the Knee Defender on their airplanes. Here, then, are some other tips to keep some stranger from reclining into your lap.

Just say no. If you fly often enough you will eventually notice that some seats don't recline. On most airplanes, these include the seats in front of the emergency exit and those in the very last row. When making your reservation or when you arrive at the gate, inquire if your assigned seat is at one of those locations. If it is, don't accept it. Otherwise, everybody will be reclining except you.

Make friends with the ticket and gate agents. The ticket and gate agents know everything about the configuration of your airplane and the seat assignments for your flight. If you approach them in a courteous manner, they will often help you get a seat with little "squeeze factor."

Sit elsewhere. Many times passengers who get into fisticuffs over the right to recline could have avoided the fight altogether by simply moving to another seat. You're not required to sit in your assigned seat, you know.

Straighten up. While I am not letting the airlines off the hook on the tiny-seat issue, it is possible that your lack of legroom is due to bad posture. Sit up straight and notice how many inches you create for your legs.

Be reasonable. Before going ballistic at the passenger in front of you, take a look around. Most likely, the person in front of him has also reclined, and the inevitable chain reaction then took place. There is usually a happy medium in these matters; lean back a little yourself, and see if that's enough breathing room.

Bump not. If you decide to retaliate by bumping, kicking or tapping the seat in front of you, all chance of reasoning will be lost and a scene will be that much closer.

Plead hunger. Most people understand that in order to eat your food, you need to be able to see it (sometimes it's better not to see the food, but that's a different topic). If the person in front of you refuses to return to an upright position, he risks getting chicken or beef dropped on his forehead. Not that you would do that intentionally, of course.

Push that call button. There may be fewer flight attendants in the cabin these days, but most of the time we are sympathetic to your plight and will try to assist in any way we can.

Spend a penny. Some airlines are now charging extra for economy seats with a few extra inches of legroom. If you have long legs, spend the money. Your comfort is worth it.

I have a friend who, when all else fails, just starts to sneeze. That usually gets the offending recliner upright in a hurry. But this unsanitary tactic could well set off an all-out conflict, so I don't endorse it. The same goes for pointing your overhead fan directly on the recliner's forehead, but I have to admit that I have done that a couple of times and it worked.

In the end, you have to put the shoe on the other foot. We live in a world in which tensions are already exacerbated by the volume of traffic, overpopulated neighborhoods and obscenely long lines. We just have to learn to get along with one another in life — and that goes double on an airplane.

How else can the tourist species be identified? and let me know.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .