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Bring on the recline decline

As a matter of best practice when travelling, using a seat’s reclining function should generally be avoided – being ‘allowed’ to do something is an insufficient reason to do something, especially when a human’s knees are at stake

(iStockphoto / The Globe and Mail)

If you’re in the mood to make an enemy, here’s a nifty travel tip: recline.

I recently flew from Paris, where I was ambling and looking at headless classical sculptures and drinking odd wine and getting food poisoning from marked-down supermarché ham, to Toronto, where I make my home. It was, without a doubt, one of the worst flights I’ve ever had.

I’m not typically the kind of person to grumble about these kinds of things. Rocketing between continents at 900-plus kilometres an hour in a brushed metal tube is baffling enough, without complaining about the service or range of in-flight entertainment. Air travel (and any travel, really) often proves an odd, stressful, fundamentally unpleasant experience, and for the most part I’m generally thrilled to be: a) not dead, and b) drinking an ice cold beer some 39,000 feet in the air.

But the mood changes when another traveller willfully makes travelling all the more unpleasant and stressful – when the person seated smack in front of you keeps reclining into you, despite your protestations at what you presume must be the feeling of your knees buckling – and audibly – under the back of their chair, miserably pinched between your miniaturized entertainment unit screening the remake of Vacation and your own incommodious form.

Knowing how to conduct oneself in such scenarios can be tricky. The thing about manners and etiquette and the other fineries of social graces is that they’re unwritten. They’re matters of convention more than hard-and-fast policy. Which is why, I think, it helps to harden the conventions; to offer firm prescriptions that become rules, such as the old escalator adage, “stand right, walk left,” or the just-as-generally-accepted “don’t fart on an elevator.”

So here’s one: Don’t recline. Don’t recline on airplanes. Don’t recline on trains. Don’t recline on buses. No reclining. Ever.

Now, sure, there may be exceptions.

Some argue that since seats were designed to recline, there is implicit approval to lie back and stretch your legs. (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

If nobody is sitting behind you, then go ahead and recline. Make your bed of roses inside those precious four extra degrees of comfort like the luxe, economy class sultan you believe yourself to be. What I’m saying is that there should be no reclining as a matter of best practice.

With airlines becoming increasingly “economized,” the size of seats and the pitch of the backrests have been shaved down. Where flying – and even flying economy – once seemed fun, or even modestly regal in some plebeian way, the experience has become as routine as riding the city bus. In such circumstances, passengers are yoked in a bond of commonality: If the person in front of me reclines, then I must recline to reclaim the precious few inches stolen from me, and so the person behind me must recline, and so on, leading to an extended chain of discomfort. Call it trickle-down rudeness. And what if a person doesn’t want to recline? Or if the last seat in the row knocks against the cabin wall? The chain of buck-passing snaps. The simplest way to avoid this would be to embrace the proposition of not reclining at all.

The common rejoinder when I’ve floated this idea past people in recent months is that seats on passenger aircraft and commuter trains and whatnot are often designed to recline, and therefore offer implicit approval to reclining. Indeed, in the case of the annoying flight from Paris mentioned above, my tormentor ahead of me claimed she was tired from travelling all day (as if I had just boarded this transatlantic flight at the last stop) and was “allowed” to recline. But being “allowed” to do something strikes me as an insufficient reason to do something.

We’re all allowed to do all kinds of obnoxious, unproductive things that make other people feel awkward and further pick at the peeling veneer of civility. The good – and not even good as in “noble and virtuous” but as in “not actively evil” – thing to do is to avoid such things. As to the matter of the chair’s ability to recline functioning as a suggestion that you can recline, regardless of the circumstances: What kind of unhinged person abides by the implied suggestions of an inanimate, unfeeling chair over the feelings of a fellow human being?

Where flying – and even flying economy – once seemed fun, or even modestly regal in some plebeian way, the experience has become as routine as riding the city bus. (iStockphoto)

There are solutions. One manufacturer introduced the Knee Defender in 2003, a set of clamps designed to prevent seats from reclining. (“If the airlines will not protect people from being battered, crunched, and immobilized … ” reads the online ad copy, perhaps a bit histrionically, “then people need options to protect themselves.”) But there’s no need to drop $21.95 (U.S.) on such a contraption if travellers merely heed the “no reclining ever” rule.

Many airlines, including Air Canada and WestJet, won’t let you use it anyway. In 2014, a six-foot-one business traveller applied the device on a United Airlines flight when he took out his laptop. The woman he prevented from reclining got angry, a drink was tossed, the plane diverted and both were kicked off the flight. James Beach, the business traveller, said later that he never reclines himself. “You have the right, but it seems rude to do it,” he told the Associated Press.

More than just a matter of comfort (or discomfort), reclining is a basic matter of civility. It’s about the ethic of reciprocity, as a fundamental norm for governing behaviour between otherwise disinterested individuals.

I’ll stop shy of deferring to the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth or Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger and others who have preached the ethos of “do unto others … .” Suffice it to say, that travelling, like life, abounds with many difficulties and annoyances that hardly need compounding by making brand-new enemies. Especially at 39,000 feet.