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The Great Seat Back Debate: Is It Rude to Recline?

During a recent United Airlines flight from Washington D.C. to Ghana, one passenger reclined his seat and was introduced to his rear-seat neighbor — with a slap to the head. A fight ensued.

According to The Washington Post, which broke the story, a flight attendant and a fellow passenger stepped in to stop the tussle. Then, upon learning that violence had broken out among his passengers, the pilot turned the plane around and headed back to Dulles International Airport.

Before the plane could land, the pilot had to circle for roughly 25 minutes. The Washington Post reports that while the plane, a Boeing 767, can take off with up to 16,700 gallons of fuel, it can’t land with it — hence the pilot had to lighten his load. As the aircraft flew in loops, two Air Force fighter jets arrived to escort the plane back to Dulles.

Once the plane landed, you’d think the police would have booked the belligerent duo. But get this: No one was charged with a crime. Not even the guy who started the fight (the one who throws the first punch is usually to blame, isn’t he?). Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told the Post that officers did not feel the incident warranted an arrest.

Ultimately, jet fuel was wasted, the Air Force was beckoned and people were inconvenienced because a couple of hot heads wanted to go to war over the loss of a few inches of seat space. Now here it comes: the Great Seat Back Debate. Clearly, mid-air violence is unacceptable, but what, exactly, is the appropriate course of action when cruising altitude is reached and the seat back button beckons? Is it rude to recline?

In The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room, Ed Hewitt offers a simple compromise: “I believe there is a time for upright seats, and there is a time for reclining fully. Everything in its season, I read somewhere.” Hewitt suggests that travelers glance to the rear before reclining. (Don’t do it if the passenger behind you is eating a meal or is extremely tall.) Furthermore, says Hewitt, “You don’t have to push your seat all the way back to get a snooze; only take what you need.”

John Deiner, Managing Editor of’s sister site Cruise Critic, argues for a more compassionate approach to seat back reclining: just don’t. Says Deiner, “When people put their seat back it bothers the heck out of me, so I always assume it does the same to the person behind me. I’m 6’1″, so putting the seat back doesn’t really improve my legroom that much at all anyhow. One way my wife and I deal with it: She gets the seat in front of me, and if someone puts the seat back in front of her, it’s not such a big deal because she’s shorter. I’ve tried talking to people who put their seat back expecting me to perform dental work on them, and sometimes we come to an agreement, sometimes they wave me off. When they do that, I aim the cold air from my seat vent at the top of their head.”

Better to aim cold air than a few punches at the guy pushing that seat in your face. My opinion? I recline whenever I feel like it. I paid for the seat. It’s my right to transition from a stiff upright position to a stiff mostly upright position if and when I so choose. It’s not like the seats recline all that much anyway. The difference between a reclined seat and an upright seat on an airplane is the difference between a quiet hum and a whisper. (Okay, I’ll admit it. As a petite person who barely scrapes 5’3″, I’m probably somewhat ignorant to the plight of the statuesque air traveler. Maybe I’ll reconsider my position on this. Maybe.)

Now it’s your turn. Whose side do you take?

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