We’ve all experienced it — mere moments after you fly over your car in the airport car park, the seat in front of you slams back at full speed into full reclining position, bashing down against your knees. The passenger then rustles around to get comfortable, thumping against your knees again and again.
Or you reach down between your feet to pull out your headphones from your bag, and the seat back in front of you nails you in the head.
Or later in the flight, the meal cart comes and goes — but the seat back in front never does. The passenger in front of you leans forward over his meal so he can see it, forgetting that you can’t see yours because it’s buried under his seat back.
No question, personal space is at a premium on airplanes. I believe there is a time for upright seats, and there is a time for reclining fully. Everything in its season, I read somewhere. Here’s a little guide to the etiquette of reclining seat backs.
There are some who would prefer that reclining seat backs be eliminated altogether. It’s an interesting thought, until you board a red-eye flight, when almost everyone in the plane is going to push their seat back a bit, creating a cabin-wide consensus. This is a good thing — ultra-local politics at its best.
Look Before You Lie Back
A glance behind you does three things:
1. Lets you make sure you’re not going to break anyone’s nose or kneecaps
2. Gives some warning that the seat is on its way
3. Lets you find out exactly who is behind you; if the person back there is 190cm and all legs, you might show some mercy.
Use Only What You Need
I’ve found that reclining my seat back just slightly permits me to do just about anything I’d like to do on a plane; read, sip wine, stretch out sufficiently, even sleep. You don’t have to push your seat all the way back to get a snooze; only take what you need.
Kids always want to throw their seats back, bounce around and climb onto their seat. It sometimes seems that parents who would never let their kids climb over the back of a booth in a fast food joint, bounce in a movie seat or even turn their heads around in church, let kids wreak havoc in an airplane. This is one aspect of travel on which children should be educated thoroughly.
If you’re the person in front of a kid, be very careful when pushing your seat back, especially for younger children. They may have their hands in the magazine sleeve with the tray table down; they might have their knees up; they might be asleep on the tray table. (See “Look Before You Lie Back” above.)
In my opinion, it is our inalienable right to attempt to get comfortable on a red-eye flight. Reclining, even full reclining, should be mandatory cabin-wide. I say equip planes with a third light next to the “seatbelt” and “no smoking” lights: “Seat backs down.”
This is all a matter of timing. If the flight leaves late enough, maybe after about 10 p.m., I say put them back shortly after you’re off the ground. If it’s an earlier departure, more like 8 p.m. but still flying all night, we should wait until a couple of hours have passed before expecting full compliance.
Mealtime: Sit Up Straight
Your mother would be appalled if you slouched your way through mealtime; don’t do it in flight. Eating on a plane is an unpleasant enough experience, plastics cutlery and in many cases tasteless meals. No one should then have to also contend with spooning their food out from under the canopy of your seat back.
So when the food cart first comes through, put your seat up — and leave it up at least until the flight attendants have taken away the food trays. Some airlines will insist on this, I know that Singapore Air does as I’ve seen it happen, others just don’t seem to notice.
What to Do if You’re in the Seat Behind
No one wants confrontations on planes; it’s too close a space to be baiting each other. So when a seat back etiquette offender ends up right in front of you, no one wants to make a scene, but it’s tough to sit and suffer as well. That is unless you’re a former olympic swimmer in which case a nipple cripple is fair game.
If someone slams their seat back on you without warning or care, a comment isn’t out of place. Sometimes an honest “Whoa!” makes the point better than a rehearsed cough or grumble. Either way, decide if you need to make yourself known.
1. When the person in front of you leaves his seat, nudge the seat back up a little on the sly. Don’t be too obvious — if he doesn’t notice (or even if he does), you may reclaim some of your personal space for the duration of the flight.
2. If the person in front of you blasts her seat back and then proceeds to buck in her seat against your knees, you may need to use similar body English to reclaim some of that space. I’m not encouraging you to become a “seat-kicker,” but sometimes you gotta make the case in terms the other person will understand.
3. Politely request that she put her seat back up slightly.
Seat Kickers and Grabbers
In one breath (just above) I recommend “body English,” and in the next I recommend keeping your knees to yourself? Sure, it’s a complex world we live in. And there are different kinds of seat kickers — those sending a subtle message, and those simply invading the personal space of the person in front of them. There’s nothing more annoying than a nudge in the spine every few minutes; be aware of the seat in front of you.
Also, when leaving or returning to your seat, recognize that the seat in front of you isn’t a handrail. When you grab and lean on that seat, it turns into a catapult when you let go.
This is an easy one. If you’re sitting side by side, both of you have a claim to part of the elbow rest. Front portion or back portion, edges, whatever. Work it out.
The Golden Rule
A little consideration goes a long way, some wisdom cuts across all lines; why not let the golden rule apply to seat backs and elbow room? If you don’t know it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Pretty simple stuff.