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Is It Fair to Fully Recline Your Seat on an Airplane?

September 17, 2014

It might surprise you to learn that in the last month alone there have been three flights diverted in the US as a result of arguments around the “right to recline”.

We’re all familiar with the issue.crowded-airplane As soon as the stay-in-your-seat light goes out, some folks feel the right to instantly go horizontal in an attempt to assert their dominance over the miniscule legroom available on economy flights. In particular, your legroom.

One of the incidents to come to light recently involved the “Knee-Defender“, a sort of Knight in Shining Armour, but for your legs. It prevents the person in front from reclining by skillfully, or sneakily depending on where you’re sitting, interrupting the movement of the seat’s various moving bits. They probably explain it better on their own site, but all we need to know is that it works.

In this incident, on a United Airways flight from Newark to Denver, a male passenger set up the knee defender. When the female passenger in front (I’m not sure how gender is relevant) tried to recline, she couldn’t; one-nil to the Defender, or so you might think. An argument ensued, the male refused to remove the device, the female threw water in his face (ouch!), and ultimately the flight was diverted to O’Hare Chicago, where both were thrown off the flight and into the waiting, loving arms of “the authorities”.

The incident has created plenty of discussion around the topic of the Knee Defender and reclining generally. This CNN article has almost 2500 comments already, so it’s clearly a contentious issue for anyone who flies and can’t afford the luxury of business or first class.

So should such gadgets be banned altogether? According to United Airlines, they do not allow the use of the recline-blocking device on its aircraft, yet they’re perfectly happy with our knee-space being crushed? Why don’t we just invite the person in front to sit on our laps while we gently rub their neck so they can drift off to sleep?

Things weren’t always this bad.

legroom-decent-70s At the dawn of the mass-transit era, commercial airplanes were a lot roomier, owing to their exclusivity at the time, and also because many were ex-WWII converted bombers. A ticket was pricey, so you’d better make the passengers enjoy their time in the air. Flying was an event, a novelty in itself, with the destination being merely coincidental. Like renting a pink limousine for a hen party, flying was a laugh, and the comfort and extravagance reflected this.

Over the next few decades, the novelty wore off, and the beautiful and mystifying phenomenon of flight was reduced to simply another mode of transport. Airlines focused on costs and squeezing as many customers on to each flight as possible. This had two effects – the overall experience of flying was reduced, but so too were the average ticket prices, meaning it wasn’t just the well-heeled business tycoons who could now fly around the world.

If we were in charge of an airline (CurrencyAir, anybody?), being fans of fairness and transparency, we’d probably have rules around the reclining of seats, but in a nice way. We could limit the swing, lock all the seats at a moderate angle, or ban the practice altogether. Logically, the best thing to do would be knock out a few rows and give everybody an extra couple of inches, but economics would probably dictate this to be a bad idea, or surely airlines would have already done it.

Thankfully, The Telegraph have recently conducted a study on which airlines offer most amount of legroom for the average economy passenger. Their results are below, stolen borrowed directly from their article.


Surprisingly, Ryanair come off pretty well, with only premium national airlines BA and Aer Lingus beating their average.

Temporary Solutions

So if the airlines are unwilling to change the number of rows, and the person in front of you is equally as stubborn, what can be done? Here are some methods you can use to ensure minimum encroachment into your personal space on your next flight.

1 – The Fightback

Once that little light goes out, stick your knees right up into the back of the seat in front. If the person tries to recline, they’ll instantly hit a wall and, hopefully, will give up, at least for the time being. When they finally try again, you could be asleep, or have reclined your own seat so far as to not even notice.

2 – Preemptive Recline

As soon as is possible, recline your own seat as far as possible. This method secures your space, allowing you to get to sleep quickly, but only serves to perpetuate the whole problem. You’ll then be “that guy”, and will feel the glares for the rest of your flight. Although you’ll be asleep, so who cares?

The person behind you cares, and so should you. This method is only for the desperate, ignorant or very drunk, and beware, you may end up like this guy;


3 – Staggered Recline

Without being aggressive, recline your seat a little once the light goes out. Then, in another half hour or so, recline another click. Repeat this as often as necessary to achieve desired angle, and hopefully the person behind won’t even notice. They key here is subtlety, with a gentle hint of selfishness.

4 – The Money Trap

You can also take the high road, which is also the more expensive road. Airlines know people hate confined spaces, but for an additional fee you can claim one of the bulkhead seats which guarantees plenty of legroom. Although it costs money, you can’t put a price on your health and ability to walk once the plane lands.

An alternative, cheaper twist on this one is to fake an injury, a sprained ankle for example. While it involves a bit of preparation, and possibly a pair of crutches, most airlines will take sympathy and offer you a seat with extra legroom for no fee.

Also required is an ability to lie and feel no shame whatsoever. Looks totally worth it though.


So there you have some suggestions on how to make flights that little bit more comfortable. It’s still difficult to get fully relaxed, unless you’re a business/first class customer, or really small, but if everybody cared just a little more about the person in front and behind them, we’d all get along a lot easier and flying wouldn’t be such a horror.

If you’ve any funny stories about reclining on flights, or indeed suggestions on how to survive a rampant recliner, please let us know in the comments below!

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