Should the airlines eliminate seats that recline?

by Ned Levi on October 14, 2013

737-900ER with New Boeing Sky Interior, photo courtesy of Boeing

We’ve all had it happen at one time or another while flying…

The moment the announcement, electronic devices may be used, the passenger in front of you rockets his seat to be fully reclined in less than a blink of an eye, almost breaking your knees in half. The moment you’re served hot coffee on your seat tray, the sudden recline of the seat in front knocks that coffee all over you. The moment you open your laptop or tablet on your seat tray, the abrupt recline of the seat in front, literally throws the device into your chest, with no room to use it anymore.

Should the airlines eliminate seat reclines to prevent occurrences like those from happening?

To find out, let’s first take a look at why passengers recline their seats.

For many passengers, prolonged time in an airplane seat in its “upright position” can be truly painful.

According to work completed by the Cornell University Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group (CHFERG), directed by Professor Alan Hedge,

“An estimated 50 percent of people in the industrialized world suffer some form of back complaint, and many of these are related to poor seat design. How we sit and what we sit on affects the health of the spine.”

A survey by CHFERG found the preferred seat back angle for comfort is 15º, not the angle of a standard airplane seat’s “upright position,” required for passengers during takeoff and landing for safety considerations. Even when fully reclined, few economy seats can be set at 15º. Southwest Airlines, for example, has reduced their seat recline to just two instead of three inches on their new 737 interior, permitting a seat angle considerably less than 15º.

No wonder so many passengers complain about sitting in an economy seat for hours. Personally, I have a surgically repaired bad back, and find sitting in the “upright position” for very long extremely painful.

Many flights, even US domestic flights, have a duration of three hours or longer. US transcontinental flights, according to the direction of the flight, can last from about 5 to 6 hours. Most international flights last even longer. Many passengers prefer to sleep during these flights, especially the “red eyes.” Sitting in the “upright position” makes it extremely difficult for most passengers to sleep.

Frankly, a reclined seat is more comfortable for reading, watching a movie, or most anything a normal person would do on an airplane, except perhaps for eating. The work of experts, such as those found at CHRERG, confirms that.

Why do many passengers dislike the seat in front of them reclined, with some passengers doing whatever they can to prevent that recline?

A reclined seat in front of taller passengers, those approaching six feet or taller, whose knees are above the seat surface, presses the back of the seat in front of them right into their knees. That really hurts.

If you’re a laptop or tablet user, when the seat in front is reclined, your use of the tray table can be significantly diminished. Often the screen can’t be placed at a reasonable angle to view it, and the laptop’s keyboard may have to be moved so far toward you that you can’t comfortably type for more than a few minutes. It’s also difficult to use the tray table for having a meal when the seat in front is reclined.

Of those fliers surveyed by Skyscanner, 91 percent said on short-haul flights the airlines should either ban or set times for seat reclining. Even for long haul flights, 43 percent of surveyed fliers felt there should be set times when passengers are permitted to recline their seat.

I’ve heard some fliers exclaim that reclining one’s seat is rude because it’s essentially saying the recliner’s comfort is more important than the person behind them. I don’t find the statement valid, as it’s not less true that those who are against anyone reclining are stating their comfort is more important than the person in front of them.

So, what’s the solution?

The airlines have created the problem of seat recline by cramming as many seats in their planes as possible, and that’s unlikely to change. If the airlines install the newly available thinner seats, that can mitigate the problem, unless they use their installation to add even more seats into their airplane cabins.

I don’t favor eliminating airplane seat recline. I think there are too many valid reasons in favor of allowing airplane seats to recline, but I believe passengers who recline their seats must act reasonably.

• Never rocket your seat back quickly. Always recline your seat slowly and move it the minimum amount you need to be comfortable.

• Don’t recline your seat during meals.

• Take a peek behind you before reclining your seat. If the passenger behind you is tall, let them know you understand their situation, and minimize the amount you recline your seat. If the passenger is using a tablet or laptop, let them know you intend to recline your seat, but will be careful when moving it and will minimize the amount of the recline.

Both the passenger in front, and behind, need to be courteous and considerate.

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