How to calculate if it’s OK to recline your seat mid-air

Still unsure about whether to recline or not to recline on your next flight? Help is here.

Alexandra Sol
Feb 17 · 6 min read
Photo by Taylor on Unsplash

You and I are on a five-hour flight. I am sitting in front of you. We’re halfway through the journey, the seat belt signs are off and I decide that I’d like a little bit more comfort, maybe to take a nap, and recline my seat.

Sucks, right? You are left with less space, you can’t reach your bag under the seat anymore, the tray has become unusable and it’s difficult to use the in-flight entertainment screen now.

Say both of our levels of comfort were medium when we started the journey in an upright position, let’s give it a number 5 out of 10. My comfort level has just increased thanks to my reclined position. Maybe it has increased by two points and is now at 7.

Your comfort level has, of course, decreased.

There is a simple physical negative effect my reclining has on you.

And there are several psychological effects.

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Maybe you cannot reach your bag, which potentially leaves you without several necessities you took on your flight to make the traveling experience more enjoyable.

Watching videos, reading a book, or entertaining yourself in other ways has become more difficult now, maybe the trip less enjoyable.

You did not make the choice to have the seat in front of you reclined — the other person did. You are feeling a loss of control over your own well-being, which is a direct result of another person gaining control. That’s stressful!

These are all very natural feelings and sensations to experience when the person in front of you is reclining their chair.

You cannot help you feel that way.

Given all of these natural feelings and sensations, it would be fair to say that your comfort level has decreased more than my comfort level has increased now that I am in a reclining position. Let’s say yours went down by 3 points and is now at 2.

It’s unethical of me to recline my seat purely for comfort, as it increases your discomfort disproportionally.

So, I shouldn’t recline.

But even if my increase in comfort were about the same as your decrease in comfort, it would be wrong of me to recline.

By reclining I am not simply taking away comfort from you — I am creating discomfort for you.

So, I shouldn’t recline.

But couldn’t you always recline your own seat thereby rebalancing the space and thus restore comfort?

So, I shouldn’t recline.

Does asking make any difference?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If I ask you whether you‘d mind if I reclined my seat and you said “yes” I would be grumpy for the rest of the journey. Why? Because I am allowed to recline and I only asked you out of courtesy expecting that you would say “no problem.”

If I recline anyway, you would feel even more miserable for being disrespected on top of everything else!

But you’ll probably say “no problem” since that’s the social rule, isn’t it?

I’ll recline feeling good about myself for asking. You don’t feel quite as miserable as you would have had I not asked. A pretty good outcome overall.

So, I should ask whether you’d mind if I reclined.

That’s even morally better than not reclining!

Photo by Aaron Greenwood on Unsplash

But then there are also all these other people on the plane and things are starting to get more complicated. Because there is a row after your row!

What if I happened to decide to recline the same moment you decide to recline and the person behind you decides to recline? This may work, but not without costs.

There will always be a last row where people can’t recline and are greatly inconvenienced by reclines.

But let’s say all the other people choose to recline at the same moment. Maybe their comfort level goes up by one point: from 5 in an upright position to 6 in a reclined position.

If there are enough people on the plane who now have a slightly higher comfort level this may very well outweigh the decreased comfort level of the last-rowers.

So, it’s morally acceptable for me to recline.

There’s more good news.

If the last-rowers have received a discount specifically for picking the last row, knowing that the people in front of them will recline, they will feel better when the reclining happens. They knew in advance that it will happen, so this should restore some sense of control and choice. And they received compensation that should have a further positive effect on their psychological well-being.

Well, this only works if the airline makes it clear to the last-rowers that reclining seats might occur at any time during any flight (except for take-off and landing, of course). You would think that’s obvious, but apparently some people expect others to know of an unwritten rule that reclining is not allowed on a two-hour flight.

Here’s the tricky thing though: how do you get all the people (except for the last-rowers) to choose to recline at the same time? Answer: No choice for no one.

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash

Automatic reclines at fixed times following a strict schedule issued in advance of each flight.

The alternative?

Permanently disabling the reclining function for seats in economy, have an extra row of reclining seats for people with disabilities and injuries, and leave a large gap to the row behind the reclining one.

So, there’s no moral dilemma for me to figure out.

Yep, that’s paternalism. But when you’re sitting in a steel coffin with people left, right, back, and front, breathing down your neck then some well-placed paternalism is quite acceptable.

Feel free to include my calculations in your flyers for your Anti-Reclining-Campain. I’m on your side. Mostly.

The Hit Job

humor | culture | football | trouble

Alexandra Sol

Written by

University Professor|Published Philosopher|Coach|Animal Lover|Expat living in Europe|Silly Person

The Hit Job

humor | culture | football | trouble

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