An Etiquette Expert Weighs In On That Viral Seat Reclining Drama

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Last week, a video of a man repeatedly pushing on the back of his fellow airplane passenger's reclined seat went viral. It was shared by the woman sitting in the reclined seat along with a tweet that said, "He was angry that I reclined my seat and punched it about 9 times - HARD, at which point I began videoing him, and he resigned to this behavior. The other jackhole is the @AmericanAir flight attendant who reprimanded me and offered him rum!"
Though videos of people behaving badly on airplanes are pretty common viral internet fodder, this particular clip sparked much discussion because there wasn't a consensus on which person in the video was being rude. Was it the person pushing on the reclined seat or the person who reclined her seat into her fellow passenger's space?
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Commenters took sides and the CEO of Delta Air Lines, Ed Bastian, even shared his opinion, telling Squawk Box, "Customers have the right to recline... but I think the proper thing to do if you're going to recline into somebody is that you ask if it's okay first and then you do it." Bastian also went on to say that he never reclines and he would never say anything if someone in front of him reclined. That may be what the CEO of Delta thinks is appropriate, but what is the actual airplane seat etiquette according to an etiquette expert?
Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and co-president of The Emily Post Institute, tells Refinery29 that how you handle a seat-reclining situation on an airplane should depend on your specific situation. Before reclining your seat, take a minute to evaluate how much space you have, how your back feels, and how long the flight is. Once you do that, you can decide if you're going to ask the person behind you if it's okay to recline or simply tell the person that you're going to recline. Post also recommends setting a timer for a reasonable amount of time so that you don't spend the entire flight with your seat back invading the space of the person behind you.
Those who feel like they really do need to recline their seats on a flight should feel free to do so. Post suggests going about it like this: "If this is really my back pain or if I'm bigger than the space that I am in and want some relief from that then I think it's turning around and saying, 'I'm going to recline my seat for a little bit to relieve my back and get a little bit of space. I'm going to set a timer for X amount of time, and I'll put it back up then. Please let me know if you need to move it to get out or anything.'"
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While you're in the reclined position, regardless of whether you've asked the passenger behind you if it's okay or simply told them you're going to lean back, it's important to be mindful of your surroundings, according to Post. That means putting your seat back up if the person has a drink served to them or wants to use their laptop and might need more space to do so. In other words, Post says, "try to minimize the impact on the person behind you."
Okay, but what do you do if you're the person being reclined into? Post insists that it's okay to ask for more room if you need it. "In that scenario, it's tapping someone on the shoulder lightly and saying in your nicest, most polite voice, 'Excuse me. I was wondering if you'd be willing to put your seat up just a little bit or partially.' Try to say something that sounds like you're offering a compromise and try to say it in a calm and friendly tone."
Tone, of course, is key in all of these interactions, especially since tensions can run very high when you're packed into a small plane with a lot of other uncomfortable people you don't know. "Remind yourself that you don't know who you're dealing with," Post explains. "That's why we try to apply things like soft, pleasant tones in our voice and a pleasant expression on our face — we're not scowling at the person or not rolling our eyes at them."
While the seat pushing incident was most certainly a crappy situation for both the star of that viral video and the one filming it, Post points out that it's actually a positive thing that people are finally talking about airplane etiquette because planes are getting more cramped, airplane seats are getting smaller, and people are continuing to fly more and more. It's important for everyone who chooses air travel to understand that the plane seats come with the function of being able to recline, therefore everyone must be prepared to deal with the situation in a civilized way when that function is employed.
That said, it's also important for the airlines to see that this is becoming an issue. "My hope for the future is the airlines are going to deal with this situation because I think it's just too tempting for things to go wrong. You've got people in small spaces, you've got anxiety about flying, you've got all kinds of things that are just making it a hotbox of a situation," Post shares. "I think it's good for the airlines to hear how much this affects people and it's good for people to speak up about it because they've got to change something at some point if they want to keep the skies friendly."
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