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OP-ED: It’s My Right to Recline My Seat

In the travel world, few topics incite more contention and indignation than seatback etiquette.

When flying out of Portugal, I reclined my seat and fell asleep. I woke up when the man sitting directly behind me grabbed my arm and shook me, yelling something in Portuguese (of which I know nothing). The flight attendant heard the ruckus and came over. The man was upset because my seat was reclined during mealtime, which he apparently thought was some kind of crime. I, on the other hand, felt that another person putting his hands on me was the more shocking offense.

It’s rude to grab and shake a stranger on a plane, right? Depends whom you ask. Some readers argued that I was the traveler-gone-wild in this scenario. And since I couldn’t hide in the kitchen eating cookies and ignoring my emails forever, I heard them out.

The following is just one of many emails and comments we received on the matter:

“After reading the article … it is my opinion that the most Inconsiderate, selfish, and rude people who travel in economy class/coach class or any other class for that matter are those who recline their seats into the person’s space behind them The first to cry foul are usually the worst offenders. Airline seats should be designed so that they can not be reclined into the passenger space behind them. I have never reclined my seat into another passenger’s space, However, I have let others know when they have done so to me.” —D.C.

There appear to be three schools of thought: recline, don’t recline ever or I will scream at you, and recline within reason. (You can probably guess to which theory the abovementioned emailer subscribes.)

If we’re going to get all egalitarian about personal space on planes, shouldn’t we point the finger at first class? If airlines eliminated premium classes but kept the same number of seats on planes, we would all enjoy a more comfortable flying experience. Yes, the economics behind elite seating get flights off the ground. But we could swap spatial perks for other incentives. Give first-class flyers free massages, an exclusive bathroom, higher-quality cushions, whatever it takes. Just give us coach flyers somewhere to put our legs.

I know. It’s pie in the sky. So here’s a more realistic solution: The airlines should stop seat reclining altogether. Some planes are outfitted with seats that don’t go back, but the industry as a whole does not appear to be going in that direction. So if you really want to beat the system, bring your very own Knee Defender. This product, which sells for $21.95 on Gadget Duck, hooks into your tray table and actually stops the seat in front of you from reclining. It’s gotten the OK from the FAA, according to the product’s website, however, it’s been banned by most airlines. (The Knee Defender’s inventor? A 6′ 3″ guy who travels a lot.) Note that the website selling the Knee Defender lists the product as temporarily out of stock but it’s unclear if the item is still being sold.

Just one caveat: Don’t use the Knee Defender on me. Despite condemnation from, ahem, select members of the travel community, I will continue to make use of those extra inches from reclining my seat. As long as there is a button that takes me from really uncomfortable to just-as-uncomfortable-but-now-I can-pick-my-chin-up-off-my-chest, I will push it. Please direct angry emails to your local state representatives.

Readers, what’s your opinion? Is there a solution to the seatback dilemma? What should the etiquette be for reclining seats? As always, we ask that you keep your comments polite and constructive.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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