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Tips to refine your seatback savviness

With seat pitch shrinking and waistlines expanding, it’s no wonder  “reckless reclining” is such a hot topic in the Well-Mannered Traveler mailbag.
Duane Hoffmann /

A quick quiz: What is “seat pitch?”

A) The newest Olympic sport;
B) The mysterious sticky substance sometimes found on airplane seats;
C) The distance between the rows of airplane seats.

If you picked A, you’re wrong, but who can blame you? If synchronized swimming and handball are Olympic sports, why not seat pitching?

If B was your choice; wrong again. But you’re obviously a frequent flier all too familiar with the perils of modern air travel.

The right answer here is C: Seat pitch on an airplane is the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the seat behind it.

So what?

Well, seat pitch varies among airlines and airplanes. And according to , a Web site that compares seat characteristics on various aircraft, “While one or two extra inches of pitch may not seem significant, it can make a huge difference in terms of comfort and productivity. Two more inches of pitch usually means your knees won't be touching the seatback in front of you and you'll be able to fully open your laptop screen.”

The average seat pitch on U.S. airlines once averaged about 34 inches. But the average seat pitch narrowed to just 31 inches once airlines began aggressively squeezing as many seats as possible onto each airplane. That means more people are finding their knees touch the seatback in front of them and they can barely open a laptop on the tray table — even before any reclining begins.

So it’s no wonder that shrinking seat pitch and “reckless reclining” are hot topics in the Well-Mannered Traveler mailbag.

Six-foot-three Tom from Ardmore, Penn., describes it this way: “What really irks me is how often the person in from of me will put their seat all the way back and slam their seat into my legs ... It galls me that people never bother to check and see if it’s OK to intrude into the space behind them.”

But, like Ken from Ann Arbor, Mich., many readers believe their plane ticket is accompanied by an unalienable right to recline: “... [T]he airlines have equipped the seats to recline ... and if I do want/need to recline my seat, does that give you the right to kick my seat back, tap continuously on the tray table and/or grab my seat back to hoist yourself out of your seat ... I think not ...”

Kicking a seat back, slamming a tray table or pointing an overhead air nozzle toward the scalp of a rude recliner is, as one reader says, “so first grade.” And while those activities may give you some satisfaction while scrunched up with no room to eat, read or work, those strategies aren’t likely to convince a recliner to straighten up.

Some of these more well-mannered “tactics for tilters,” though, just might work.

Study the seat charts
Coach travelers seeking extra legroom already know to request a seat in an exit row, but because some exit row seats don’t recline, a seat behind an exit row often offers extra legroom as well.

Annotated seat charts on web sites such as reveal which seats or rows of seats offer more room. The seat pitch in rows 12-25 on JetBlue’s fleet of Airbus A320’s for example, is a generous 34 inches, and even better — 36 inches — in rows 1-11.

Purchase extra pitch
First- and business-class sections almost always offer more room to recline, so nab seats there if your budget allows. For less money, though, some coach passengers may purchase extra room. United Airlines allows travelers to buy their way into the Economy Plus section of the airplane, where seats offer up to 5 inches of extra legroom, and the pitch on Midwest Airlines Signature Service jets averages between 33 and 34 inches.

Rules for recliners
Ideally, when a plane reaches cruising altitude, a flight attendant would announce: “Please sit back and relax. But, dudes, before you go slamming your seat back, please swivel around, look back and make sure you’re not going to dent someone’s knees, spill their hot coffee or smash their laptop.”

While we wait for the in-flight script to be updated, some travelers would agree with the reader from Corona, Calif., who suggests making all coach seats non-reclining, in order to “ ... eliminate having somebody in your lap for hours.”  For now, though, coach seats remain built to tilt and that means we’re all wedged into this together.

Responsible reclining
Yes, airlines should make all seats more comfortable. Until then, the best rule for recliners is to always recline in the manner in which you would be comfortable being reclined upon.

That means you should always look before you lean and refrain from pushing your seat all the way back, especially if the person behind you has really long legs or is trying to eat a meal or get some work done.

If the person sitting in front of you abruptly pushes their seat all the way back and you want to reclaim some space, address them directly in a polite and calm manner. An “Excuse me, would you please move your seat up just a little bit, it’s really tight back here,” is usually more effective than kicking the seat back or making a nasty comment.

If a polite request doesn’t work and you’re terribly uncomfortable, you might look around for another seat, move your seat back just a bit or enlist the help of a flight attendant.

Or maybe we could all just follow the lead of Susan Bell’s well-mannered six-year-old and the passenger seated in front of him. “We were on a very crowded flight from MSP to BOS,” Bell writes, “and my son was occupying himself by coloring. The person in front of my son moved the seatback ... all the way back. I can’t tell you how proud I was of my son when he gently tapped the person on the arm and asked if they could please move their seat [up]. The person immediately put the seat back to the original position. No passive aggressiveness. Just first-grade politeness.”