Reclining seats and armrest etiquette

Nine out of 10 airline passengers say they want reclining seats banned in economy class, according to global travel search company Skyscanner. 
British Psychologist Dr Becky Spelman offers some explanation as to why reclining seats increasingly fuels passenger air rage: “It’s partly because there are two general personality types while travelling. There’s the ‘Altruistic Soul’, who is considerate of others, and the ‘Selfish Ego’, who will look to increase their own comfort at the expense of others.”

Almost a third of those surveyed said that someone’s reclined seat had caused them major discomfort and 3% revealed that they’d even suffered an injury. The survey also found that some passengers played safe when travelling, with 64% admitting they had never reclined their seat because they were too worried about the reaction they’d receive.

The Seat Recliner

The Skyscanner survey of over 1000 travellers found that:

  • 43% felt even long haul flights should implement set times for when passengers are permitted to recline their seat
  • 60% of cabin crew from around the world report either being involved in, or having witnessed, heated arguments between passengers on the very touchy subject of reclined seats
  • The survey found an alarming amount of Selfish Egos, with 70% of people admitting they would still recline when sat in front of a pregnant woman, and 80% saying they wouldn’t care if the person behind was elderly or frail
  • Women aged from 18-24 were the most likely to display Altruistic Soul tendencies (considerate of others)
  • Men over the age of 35 were more likely to exhibit Selfish Ego characteristics (their own comfort comes first).

Dave Boyte, Skyscanner market development manager for Australia and New Zealand says: “When you’ve got two very different personality traits crammed into a confined space for long periods of time, there’s always a chance for head-to-head clashes to take place. Having set times to recline your seat might make for a more peaceful flight for everyone.”

The Armrest Hogger

Economy class Qatar Airways
Not so, if you’re faced with The Armrest Hogger. Unwritten etiquette says both passengers should share the armrest.

On an overnight Qatar Airways flight Doha-Singapore several days ago, I sat in the window seat and a young English traveller sat in the aisle seat. Between us was a short little man in a bright blue tracksuit who somehow managed to take up 100% of both central armrests and then spread his legs akimbo so his boot-clad feet were taking up half our tiny foot space as well. Not bad for a guy who was about 160cm tall, if that. I had to keep nudging his foot away, occasionally muttering “space hog”, and finally put my handbag to the right of my feet to prevent his foot sneaking in again. The Englishman wore a furious expression, but in that British stiff-upper-lip way, dealt with it by not speaking to the man for the entire flight.

The man in front of me had reclined his seat even before take-off, but I won’t go there. I’m pro seat reclining, up to a point. Generally it’s good manners to keep your seat upright during meal service, and some cabin staff do ask passengers to keep their seats upright for that time. I forgot, on a flight to New York, and reclined my seat so suddenly that the meal tray of the person behind me ended up in their lap. Not my finest moment. But otherwise, I’m all for doing what you can to make that itty bitty seat more bearable, if your posture feels better that way.

In economy class, every square centimetre counts. Personal space is probably the most compromised you’ve ever experienced – unless you’re on a crowded commuter train or bus. If you’re on a plane for a few hours, does it really matter? But if you’re on a long haul – seven hours or more – then it does matter. But I guess that’s what movies are for, free booze is for and ear plugs, eye masks and neck pillows are for. I can’t advocate sleeping pills because doctors claim that sleeping in one position for long periods contributes to the risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis.

The Armrest Hogger and The Seat Recliner could have unexpected health benefits – they could make you so uncomfortable and restless you’ll fidget all the way to landing and your blood circulation will thank you for it.

4 thoughts on “Reclining seats and armrest etiquette

  1. Hey Heather,

    First of all, kudos for the best photo, (the 1st one at top), to illustrate the problem of reclining seats! That’s hilarious.
    What isn’t hilarious is when it happens to you. The space hog guy you describe sounds totally out of it — meaning he couldn’t see beyond the tip of his own nose. Sorry he had to be next to you.

    Here’s my airline horror story:

    I arrived late and was the very last person to board a full flight. My assigned seat was in the middle of a three-across row. As I approached my seat, I could see that the two extremely large people sitting in my row had already raised the two armrests because their bodies were too large to fit into their designated space. Their bodies were touching each other, even though there was a third seat — my seat — in the middle of them.
    I am not a tiny woman by any means, and my hips had to fit down in the middle seat that was not even visible. It was one of the most awkward moments of my life to try and wiggle in between them.
    Adding insult to injury, the two of them were traveling together to a funeral and cried to each other for the entire trip.
    I’m taking a big sigh right now just thinking back to that horrible plane ride. That was many years ago and it still raises my temperature!


    1. Hi Josie – I’d be crying too, if it was me squished into the middle seat. I almost always check in online before I fly to avoid the dreaded middle seat, or if I don’t, I get to the airport early enough (big joke in my family because I hate getting anywhere early) to get aisle or window. Your trip describes what I dread….


  2. Instead of ruining comfort for people how about creating regulations that increase seat size and space so that we can all recline our seats.

    I have had two spine surgeries and am 6’4″. I don’t care who is in back of me or how long my flight is. I am going to recline my seat. It would be too painful for me not to.

    We spend way to much time on the internet looking for ways for the corporations to get away with cramming us into smaller spaces. How about fixing the larger problem!


    1. Absolutely right, Larry. I was thinking from a short person’s perspective. My brother-in-law is a fraction taller than you and he finds Economy Class very uncomfortable. See my new post on AIRBUS CALLS FOR BIGGER AIRLINE SEATS


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: