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The 5 Rules of Reclining Your Airplane Seat

Everybody travels differently—ocean or lake, hotel or rental, tropical island or snowy mountains. But where people’s biggest differences converge is usually in the air.

In case you haven’t seen the headlines about inflight brawls and viral hissy fits, the masses are decidedly split when it comes to that little button on the arm rest—to recline or not to recline?

For a long time, the answer to this seemed simple to me: The right to recline your airplane seat comes with the territory. I purchased a ticket that includes access to that little recline button, and the person behind me (almost always) has a right to those few inches behind them, as well. What kind of person would deny anyone that general right?

But one day on a transatlantic flight to London, that all changed for me.

The moment that the monster of a human sitting in front of me sent a full cup of scalding hot tea careening into my lap when he jolted his seat back during food service, I knew I’d been wrong about that rule of thumb all along.

I let out an audible gasp and then a few choice curse words as the hot water turned cold on my now burned thighs. I waited for an apology that never came. And then I decided that someone, anyone, should settle in writing once and for all the rules of decency for pushing that recline button. It may as well be me.

Let’s see if we can all agree on these guidelines for reclining your airplane seat.

Rule #1: (The Golden Rule) Look Back

You have the right to recline. But why wouldn’t you give the courteous half glance backward to let your rear neighbor know that you’re about to encroach on what little space they already have? Sure, it’s only about two inches of vacant air, but the principle of taking over that space merits at least a body-language warning. Especially so they can brace the contents of their tray table if needed, and especially if they’re on the tall side.

Rule #2: Don’t Even Think About Reclining During Meal Service

Airplane food isn’t exactly delicious, but it’s the one small pleasure you’re allotted while you’re stuffed into a sea of wall-to-wall passengers like the well-mannered sardines the airline wants you to be. Can’t the one thing I look forward to on this flight stay off of my legs? Can’t we all agree to spare our fellow passengers an hour of freezing cold, wet clothing? Hold off for those twenty minutes of your hours-long flight.

Rule #3: Take Only What You Need

Some airplane seats recline more than others, and some passengers need only an inch to be comfortable. Do us all a favor—recline only as far back as you need, and be aware that a seat in my lap is more likely to get grabbed when I’m getting up than the aisle armrest.

Rule #4: Recline Slowly

The biggest issue I had with that scalded lap incident is that I had zero time to even try to prevent it. Coming in hot is pointless in your quest for five degrees of reclining space. You’ll get there just as effectively if you take your time. Let’s all acknowledge that the few pleasures you get while flying are for the most part located on a seat back.

Rule #5: Use Your Words

We’re all human—we make mistakes and we sometimes don’t see eye to eye. But we all have been taught since childhood one simple rule: to use our words. Your seat mates are your peers in travel, and the intragroup dynamic should be, at the very least, a civil one: What if you all end up stranded on a deserted island together?

Passive-aggressiveness is likely the root cause of so many of those flights diverted thanks to brawling passengers. So speak up—say thank you and apologize when it’s necessary. Ask nicely and you shall receive. You’re sitting too close to your fellow passengers for too long to be that proud.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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