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The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

We’ve all experienced it — mere moments after you fly over your car in the airport parking lot, the seat in front of you slams 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 headache medicine, and the seat back in front of you nails you in the noggin.

Or later in the flight, the meal cart comes and goes — but the seat back 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.

Or, as I once saw, the passenger in front of you has no other aisle mates, so she sprawls out across three seats, and to get even more comfortable, she puts all three seat backs in full reclining position! Uh, this is an airline, not a hotel…

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 my opinionated guide to airplane etiquette.

Ban Reclining?

There are some who would prefer that reclining seat backs be eliminated altogether. It’s an interesting proposal, 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 6’9″ and all legs, you might show some mercy.

Use Only What You Need

I’ve found that tilting my chair back just slightly permits me to do just about anything I’d like to do on a plane; read, sip coffee, 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.

Charity Cases

There are a few rows on many planes that may not recline: the very last row, any row backed up against a bulkhead or attendants’ area, the seats just in front of an exit row. If you are sitting in front of one of these rows, you should consider not exercising your prerogative to throw your seat back. The personal space of the passenger behind you is already restricted; you have the power to make their lives more or less miserable. Have a heart.


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.)

Night Flights/Red-Eyes

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. No one should have to contend with spooning their food out from under the canopy of your seat back. This goes double for coffee.

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.

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.

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.

More tactics:

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.

Elbow Room

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.

Working Class, First and Business Class

I don’t care if you have your spreadsheets and cell phone and thinline laptop and important papers and red power tie all in plain view and constant motion; keep them on your side of the elbow rest. If you need a little extra space, ask. I paid for my seat; it’s mine to share or hoard. ‘Nuff said.

While the greatly increased space in first and business class just about negates this issue, this column is about personal space, and I’ve found the problem strides right up to the front of the plane.

Since I pay my own travel bills, I fly coach almost exclusively. I have enjoyed the rare bump up a class or two, and have found that personal space issues are no less troublesome as space expands. Remember your chemistry class — a gas will expand to occupy all available space. Well, it seems like some first-class gasbags will do the same.

The Golden Rule

A little consideration goes a long way. This is a secular column, of course, but 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.

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