Leave My Knees Alone! Why Reclining On Planes Should Be Banned

Air Berlin Economy Cabin

The topic of reclining one’s seat on planes has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to a couple of recent incidents so extreme that they’ve caused flights to be diverted. The most egregious example was an August 24th United flight in which one passenger used a Knee Defender to lock the seat in front of him. The device, which has been around for more than a decade, clamps onto the seat tray making it impossible for the person in front to recline their seat. Arguments for and against have flown around the Internet since then, and I thought it was time for me to weigh in.

As a 6’2” guy with knee problems, where I sit in an increasingly cramped economy class plane cabin matters a lot. If I don’t get exactly the right seat, then I can expect hours of misery ahead of me. Compounding the problem are passengers in front of me who decide to recline their seats from wheels-up to wheels-down. Now, I understand that they paid for that seat and technically they have the right to recline as much as they want to, but I also think that there is such a thing as compassion and basic decency and neither seem to play a role in modern commercial aviation.

Never once have I had someone turn around to check before reclining their seat, much less ask me if it was ok. I’ve had drinks spilled, laptops crushed and knees killed on the hundreds of flights I’ve taken, all thanks to inconsiderate people in front of me. Many of the Knee Defender critics say that using this device (which is banned by the airlines) is the height of selfishness, but I would argue the contrary.

Just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t mean that you should, which is the case with individuals who decide to spend 8 hours slightly more reclined for no apparent reason other than to stretch out a bit. If it’s an overnight flight, I can understand reclining a little; I’m not talking about them. No, I’m talking about the many people who just choose to fly around the world a bit more stretched out. Yeah, I hate them.

Last week columnist Josh Barro wrote that he should be allowed to recline all he wants to; a perk he takes full advantage of. He went on to say that tall people like me are a privileged group that already enjoy more benefits out of life than our short counterparts. While it may be true that on average we make more money and are luckier at love than our undertall friends, it can’t be denied that people not as tall as I am have a completely different flying experience.

I can only imagine what it must be like to have ample legroom in an economy class seat; to not have an imprint of the tray on one’s knees and to leave a flight not hobbled but with blood actually circulating through one’s arteries. Depending on one’s height, economy class to short people may very well be the same experience as what premium economy is for me. Yet we are in the same class of travel and they have a much more enjoyable experience than I do. Doesn’t seem right, now does it?

Mr. Barro also noted that if I wanted more room, I always have the option of paying for it in the form of premium economy or business class. The problem is that I can’t afford that on a routine basis, as much as I would like to. And why should I be forced into a different class of service just because I’m tall? Josh went on to say that if I don’t want people like him to recline, I should pay them NOT to recline. That if I wanted it bad enough, I’d at least try to attempt a transaction. He said no one has tried that with him before, so therefore it must not be that big of a deal.

I’m not surprised no one has attempted to pay him off, I wouldn’t. I even bought a Knee Defender when they first came out, but I could never bring myself to use it. Why? For the same reason that I would never ask someone NOT to recline, I don’t feel like it’s my right. Unlike my selfish co-passengers the row in front of me, I don’t feel that it’s right for me to infringe on their space as they do with me. I decide to take the higher road and suffer in silence as the shorties up front have the flight of their life.

I’m not saying that airlines should ban reclining or that the Knee Defender is an appropriate device to use. Neither is true. No, instead I’m saying that the flying public should use some common sense and employ at least a modicum of human decency and take stock of every situation. Should the person behind you be taller than normal (me) maybe take the higher road and choose NOT to crush their arthritic knees for 8 hours. Maybe, just maybe, they can choose to be kind and decent people instead of the usual jerks that always seem to be seated directly in front of me.

I’m almost afraid to ask, but – What do you think?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

34 thoughts on “Leave My Knees Alone! Why Reclining On Planes Should Be Banned”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Matt! The selfishness of people never ceases to amaze me when it comes to this – I’ve had to ask the person in front to straighten his seat before, because the meal was being served and he thought it was perfectly okay to keep it reclined. Unbelievable.

  2. I’m one of those shorties you’re talking about who benefit from ample space in economy, but I’d gladly trade my comfort on flights for a few extra inches of height! Sadly, life’s never offered to make that particular trade with me.

    Personally, unless I’m in business class, I never recline my seat. And even though I have enough room in economy, it still irritates me when the person in front of me leans theirs back. In my opinion, the only way reclining seats in economy can work is if either everyone reclines or no one does.

  3. I get quietly mad when the person in front reclines, but like you, I don’t think that I have the right to ask them not to. I do recline on a night flight or if I am watching a film and the person ahead if me has already reclined and set my screen at an unwatchable action
    I only wish the peeson would check and warn me first to avoid spilt drinks or a damaged laptop, and reaise their seat again when the food is served
    I always check and warn.
    I have taken to asking the passenger in front to letting me know if/when they plan to recline on the flight as I will probably be working on my laptop and usually that approach works.

  4. Being small isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Coming in at just over 5ft, I end up with neck pain from being forced into awkward positions by the headrests being a touch too high for my head.

    My head ends up constantly slipping off the headrest as it is neither fully off or fully on it. I understand the misery knee pain must cause but neck pain is no better. Attempting sleep in an upright position is far too uncomfortable. Reclining the seat just a fraction can make a world of difference.

    The plight of the tall people out there has made the news whereas my height is often just the focus of ridicule.

    Whose suffering is more valid?

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Laura. I feel the same, yet am 5’4″. The seat tips my head forward. Frankly, I’m sorry for the writer’s arthritic knees, but my arthritic hips will have me searching for the best position possible, and chances are that is not a direct upright, which i can rarely tolerate for more than an hour.

    2. I’ll pipe in on this one. Yes, I’m only 5’3″ and I agree that the headrests send my head into an awkward angle which is quite uncomfortable. I also have a back injury, so sitting straight up with my head jutting forward for a 9-15hr flight is just not feasible. I always look behind me before putting my seat back to make sure I’m not going to knock something over and I always recline it slowly. I make it a point to get up often during long flights to stretch my legs and get blood flowing.

  5. Matt, I hope many people read this excellent article you’ve written. I’m 6’1″ and have had countless experiences while flying that make the experience not only unpleasant, but also unhealthy to my knees and the integrity of my posture. It is ridiculous that seats have become so small, but it is made far, far worse when the person in front of me decides to recline. Many times while I am sitting in my seat in a normal sitting position in which my knees are pushed up against the upright seat in front me, the passenger will suddenly decide to recline, and without me doing anything but sitting there in as correct a postural position as I can accomplish, my knees automatically prevent their seat from going back at all. So they will struggle, push harder, and I usually give in by spreading my knees wide apart to accommodate their desire to recline. If I am in an aisle seat, this means my knee sticks out into the aisle, which then has been bumped by carts, my foot stepped on, and other discomforting incidents. Many times during takeoff the person’s seat in front of me is slightly reclined, and this alone makes sitting comfortably impossible for me. When this happens (a lot) I ask the flight attendant to please have the person move their seat to the upright position (a requirement during take off and landing). I realize there is nothing I can do about this so I strongly believe the responsibility lies with the airlines. They need to have seats that accommodate peoples’ knees and legs. I think they are committing a medical injustice and perhaps even a potential medical disaster. They should have seats that accommodate those of us who by birth stand taller than average. As far as flying business class, which I have done and love, the price can be prohibitive. The middle class and lower class income people are growing in this country but their incomes are not–in fact research indicates that income for these people, for the most part, is shrinking or barely keeping up with inflation. When the pyramid gets too heavy at the top with the rich getting richer and richer, and the middle and lower income people getting less and less of the pie, the pyramid eventually collapses. This is what happened in the 18th century in France and the result was revolution. But, this is another topic. Just saying….

  6. I agree with you. I do not recline my seat out if courtesy to the person sitting behind me. Almost always, the person in front of me reclines back into my lap, never asking or warning. I know it is their right but I never do it.

  7. Disagree. They are not selfish and you getting angry at them and stewing in your seat is just passive aggressive. I get that you’re tall and it’s uncomfortable and I’m sorry for that but how about just kindly having a word with the person ahead of you explaining your situation as you all board? If someone asked me I would definitely try to help out – except on a night flight as already stated. In fact all of you have stated reasons when you would recline – that’s not selfish in your eyes?

  8. I’m 6’4″ and I think anyone complaining about passengers reclining their seats needs to suck it up princess.

    Couldn’t disagree more!

  9. For a girl, I’m on the taller side, though not obscenely tall (5’7″), so I can understand, in part, the irritation here. When people recline their seat in front of me, I always have to snatch at my drink, and make sure my laptop isn’t going to become a victim to seat abuse. And then my knees get the lovely experience of being wedged into the back of the seat for a few hours.

    However, just to play devil’s advocate, I don’t think everyone reclines simply out of selfishness. I have back problems, and sitting on airplanes is a special brand of torture for me. Often times the only thing that can ease my pain (which has gotten to the severity of nausea at times) is reclining the seat while stuffing a pillow behind my back for lumbar support.

    That said, I think the biggest takeaway here is respect. When I do recline my seat, I check to make sure the person behind me isn’t in the middle of a meal. If they’re on a laptop I try to warn them, and I never recline my seat fast for fear of sending someone else’s drink flying.

    1. I get your back hurts, but so do my knees. Matt’s description of his knee torture mirrors my experience. Fortunately I don’t fly very often and my trips are for vacations. I’d like to enjoy my vacation not hobbling around. Having my knees immobile or jammed can result in my knees aching and locked for days afterwards. It would be a nice gesture for people to turn around and ask how far back they can recline without adversely impacting the person behind. I have never experienced it before. I don’t recline unless I am in business (very rare) or premium economy.

      1. Eric, you don’t get it. Lower back problems aren’t a mere hurt. Lower back problems usually involves pressure on the nerves near the spine. Think of someone taking an arc-welder to your spine. The pain is searing. It usually takes days to recover after a flight. We acknowledge the aching pain of your knees, but we’re also trying to manage the significantly higher pain in our backs. Reclining mitigates lower back problems during flight. I’ll try to work with you for a mutual solution, but reclining has to be a part of it.

  10. Just a very quick important note: People have different reasons for why they choose to sit where they sit, economy vs first. I really never traveled first until my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis…now I have muscle spasticity in which I HAVE to stretch out. But is that anyone else’s fault, no. Same as being “tall”. I now purchase first class on all flights…I just can’t travel as often because it does cost more…but really…take a look at yourself and do what is right.

  11. We are missing the point. It’s not whether we should recline or not because of our fellow passengers. If anything we should rally against the airlines for the subhuman conditions they offer for the same price they didn’t use to….too many companies got used to making more profit during the economy downturn by making small changes, but enough is enough. What’s next, we all fly standing up??

  12. I wasn’t going to post either way because it’s not a subject that really interests me, but your complaining about short people irritated me. You really think short people are having the ride of their life in economy? Really? You aren’t carrying your entire height difference in your legs, you know. I’m short and I don’t have enough leg room when the seat in front reclines even slightly- no one does! You might have it slightly worse, but the difference really isn’t as much as you’re making it sound.

    And even if you insist the leg room is a misery just for the tall people, short people have comfort issues too! I’ve never had a plane ride where I didn’t end up with a serious crick in my neck or a major backache because the headrest isn’t in the right place. I spend the whole flight either with a crick in my neck because my head is pressed at an awkward angle where the seat meets the headrest, or a major ache in my back as my body has to learn forward so I’m not touching it at all.

    I have sympathy for tall people and I never recline my seat if the person in front of me hasn’t done so, but I won’t feel guilty for reclining if they do. You say that it isn’t your fault that you’re tall- well, it isn’t mine either. No one on a long haul flight is comfortable, so it’s a waste of time sending your blood pressure sky rocketing by stewing about the short people.

  13. I am 5″1. If I sat in front you and you politely asked me not to recline. I would do it. I have been asked before and I happily obliged. I have even been asked by someone sitting next to me if they can open their legs to invade my personal legroom and I said yes.

    It doesn’t bother me and if it makes the flight goes faster and their day a little better then I am happy to do it.

    Especially since most of my height is in my torso and my legs barely touch the ground when I seated in most adult chairs. Haha.

  14. I am a tall woman with a 32 inch inseam and my knees usually hit the back of the seat in front of me. However, most airline seats cause me great discomfort to my back in and upright position. I need to recline. The knees can be adjusted if you don’t put an enormous bag under the seat in front of you. It isn’t wonderful but that is not the fault of the passenger in front of you.

  15. Great post, and I agree. I simply cannot sit in most economy seats. I’m 6’5″, wear size 36″ inseam pants, and my thigh bones are long enough that no matter how I sit in a standard economy seat, odds are, my knees will be pressed into the back of the seat in front of me. I can’t shift them around, not place a bag under the seat in front of me, or recline my own seat in any way that eliminates the fact that my upper leg is simply too long to fit in the space allowed for it. For those who are shorter who say “Move your bag up top,” or “Recline your own seat,” or, “It’s not that bad,” you have no idea what you’re talking about. None of those things work. I’ve had flights where I’ve walked off the plane in pain, with dents and red marks across my knee caps from the awful round metal rod that supports the top of seatback pockets in many airline seats. And, in the worst cases, I’ve had seats where I couldn’t even really sit down, and was unable to move my legs at all while “seated.” Thankfully, those have all been on mercifully short flights.

    I think there’s a lot of blame to go around. Obviously, some people aren’t very courteous about how they recline. I will work with you. Just, be gentle about it. Don’t slam the seat back. Look before you recline, and if my laptop or drink is in the way, please warn me so I can move them. If it’s a daytime flight (most are; and I never fly overnight unless changing continents, and then only in business or first), don’t recline fully. Give up a little recline and I’ll give up a little of my space. Neither of us may get our ideal position for comfort, but neither is at our most uncomfortable. What’s wrong with courtesy and compromise?

    I think there’s blame that can be directed toward the airlines. They determine how much recline is in the seats. Nearly all airline seat recline mechanisms are adjustable. Some airline/aircraft/seat combinations are notoriously bad for having too much recline for the allowable space. This is true in all cabins. First class on United’s Airbus 319s and 320s is a prime example. The seats have so much recline that if someone goes all the way back, the seat is nearly touching the ends of the armrests of the seats behind it. The person behind the full recliner is stuck, unable to get out of his or her seat, or even reach something in a bag they’ve stored under the seat. United could fix this but never has. It doesn’t require a seat replacement; just an adjustment to the existing seats to limit their recline just a bit. The airlines also control how many seats are on planes and how much space exists between them.

    That brings me to another party that is responsible. All of us. The flying public. ALL of us. For years, we’ve told the airlines we will make most of our purchasing decisions based on price alone. If Airline A offers to sell you an economy ticket with great legroom from Washington, DC to Los Angeles for $250 one way, and Airline B offers you the same ticket for $225 with not so great legroom, 90% of us will save the $25 and go without the legroom. Pretty soon, Airline A can’t make money, and is faced with either offering a better product for a lower price (which may generate even more losses), or matching Airline B not only on price, but amenities. Give it a few years, and the cycle will repeat, over and over, each time with a bit less legroom, a bit thinner seat that’s more uncomfortable, and unhappier passengers. Yet, while we all gripe about it, people still buy tickets, and they still buy mostly based on price alone. People love to say things like “Airlines charge more now for less,” but the reality is, when adjusted for inflation, average airfares have been in steady decline for decades now. You may think you’re paying more for less but the reality is you’re really paying, on average, less today than you did 20 years ago, when the ticket included bag checks, a meal, and another inch or two of legroom. Don’t believe it? Then just Google airline prices inflation and you’ll find plenty of evidence of this fact.

    At this point in my 40 years, I’ve flown over 1,600 times. For the last decade, I’ve been on an airplane an average of 3 times a week, every week. And more often than not, I’m the tallest passenger on the plane. Fortunately, all that flying for work means it’s easier for me to get into premium economy, business, and first class seats. I often pick flights based on airline, elite status, and availability of premium economy or upgrades to the front cabin. I’m lucky I can do that. I probably would have severe knee problems at this point if I couldn’t. But, even in those seats with extra room, I’m still find myself at times with the passenger in front of me’s head practically in my lap due to aggressive reclining. I’ve never bought a knee defender, or have been rude to another person about it, but I’ve been bullied by other passengers who are mad that they find my long legs to impede on their “right” to fully recline. Just yesterday I flew SFO-LAX in first class, and had a guy slam his seat back before takeoff into my knees. I tried to adjust my position so that we could both be more comfortable, which inevitably meant his seat bounced some as I moved. He then turned around and said, “Are you a f’ing baby? Stop kicking my seat!” Fortunately it was only an hour until we were at LAX, but that was certainly no way to handle it. I didn’t even ask him to raise his seat; I simply moved so that I could be more comfortable, which meant his seat bounced a little because it was sitting on my knees.

    I don’t know what the solution is. I do what I can by buying better seats, and by supporting airlines that at least make that option available. But, it’s obvious that being kind to others about it doesn’t always result in such courtesy being echoed back (like the guy yesterday). I hate to be the rude guy who argues back and picks a fight over it, but I also hate always being the silent victim who sits in agony while the person ahead of me gets more comfortable.

  16. Totally agree! I’m not that tall (5’7″) but have long legs so my knees are touching most seat backs before anyone reclines. I had someone recline so far once that I literally could not get out of my seat while they were reclined. And when I politely asked for them to move up just a bit so I could get out of my seat, I got a death glare! It is also particularly frustrating when I bring my laptop and plan to work on a flight but the person in front of me reclines making it impossible. In general I just think it’s a matter of common courtesy. I never recline out of respect for the person behind me.

    I am always thankful on international flights for the flight attendants who at least make everyone go upright during meal time.

  17. I am neither tall (compared to most men) nor short at a very nice 5’8. Despite this, I frequently cross my legs on flights. This means that my knees often act as their own “defender” because the person in front of me can’t recline. Despite this, I often have people keep slamming on their seat trying to force it back. One man did this so forcefully he actually bruised me. I decided to ask him to stop to no avail. While they have the right to recline I believe I also have the right to leg space I was given. When they recline and I don’t because of respect I get half the space of the person in front and behind me.
    I honestly think they should make the chairs have slight recline and nothing further because it just causes problems for everyone on board.

  18. Matt I think that your EXPERIENCES are interesting but why are your BAD KNEES more important than my bad back?

    I have had low back problems for over 20 years and if I was not able to recline my seat on an airplane I would never be able to ride one and I live in Hawai’i so that would really suck!

    The amount of pain I get from sitting completely upright is horrendous and on a flight lasting more than a few minutes it would cause so much pain and difficulty that any ‘trip’ I was taking would be completely ruined.

    I do try to communicate with those behind me and also to back up slowly but more times than not I find that ‘people’ in general just don’t seem to have a lot of compassion when flying coach and are going to hit my seat (hard) over and over again regardless of how much recline I have on my seat. It goes both ways and while I sympathize with you I see this more as a problem with airlines not having any sympathy towards those with chronic pain and disabilities. Rarely do we get upgraded and the vast majority of us cannot afford to fly first class. Compassion seems like the logical choice but I never get as irritated with others than I do when I fly and I think the reasons for that are much deeper than your ‘knee problems’.

  19. I agree with others, that the direction of your frustration should be squarely at the airlines. If one buys a ticket and the seat reclines, that is something you reasonably think you should be able to do (with the exception of slamming into laptops and drinks). You inherently end up with seat A with less value then seat B due to who is sitting behind them. My other thought is why is it assumed only short people recline their seats? That is not my observation/experience at all. People of all shapes and sizes reline their seats, including tall people. If you have strong feelings direct them at the airlines, ask to greatly limit the reline on seat backs. In the meantime try talking to the person in front of you preflight. It doesn’t always work but I think your success rate would jump dramatically over saying nothing and sulking.

  20. I am a very short woman (157cm) and for several years, was a very frequent flyer on a certain Australian domestic route. Even at my small stature, I find seat reclining rude, invasive and abhorrent. Seat reclining should be BANNED on all flights less than 3 hours. We are cramped enough as it is in a plane; why force yourself further into what little personal space that we have?

    1. AJ – your view, like most people who don’t like seat reclining is entirely self centred. How do you know people reclining their seats haven’t just come off international long haul flights and are connecting through or have just worked a night shift or something and really need that extra 2 hours of sleep to function?
      As everyone keeps saying, if its SUCH a big deal to you, upgrade to business class or to an exit row – you CAN do something about it – it’s no one else’s fault if you are too stingy or disorganised to do so.

  21. I totally agree with you. I only recline my seat if everyone else around me is (for over night flights). I am luckily 5’2, but my husband is 6’2 just like you. I have had to trade seats with him before due to rude recliners in front (the seat is on his knees otherwise).

  22. Although I feel for your “cramped” space depending on the seat if i do NOT recline I’m forced to sit through a flight with my neck forced in a downward position from the headrest that should be behind my neck. Although as a tall person this may be comfortable for you (it probably goes behind your neck) hours of sitting like that is painful.

    Additionally, tall people seem to expect that due to their size they should also have access to the entire arm rest and I should sit with my arms tucked tightly against my body.
    Knowing that the seats are crammed and uncomfortable for EVERYONE (my neck is as important as your knees) everyone should be able to put the seat they paid for in any position that makes them comfortable.
    I have flown with knees in my back to have the comfort of my neck in a normal position.
    And for everyone with a child 1.please stop them from kicking the sear and 2. Please use headphones with the loud games they play for several hours

  23. Selfish is a two way street. It’s equally selfish to assume the person in front of you shouldn’t recline. What’s next, no using the reading light because the person next to you wants to take a nap or you must close the vent because it’s selfish to make them cold? How about you can’t smoke for a minimum of 5 hours before your flight because I can smell the smoke on your clothing. Or you can’t eat your baloney sandwich because the person next to you is vegan and is selfish to subject them to the sight of meat. People have been tall for decades and people have been reclining for decades and economy seats have been tight for decades so why is it a problem now?

  24. You are a travel writer correct? I read a number of travel blogs. Unless Johnny Jet is reviewing whats it like in cattle car rear I think he is usually in business or premium economy which is what $50 xtra. Why be in misery when you can be comfortable. Don’t you upgrade w your miles or at least tell the gate agent who you are. Flying East–BA, Lufthansa or Emirates. Flying West–Singapore, Cathay, American…..Malta is ok, like Cyprus more. Are you at the Hilton?

  25. What some people are missing is the need to recline ‘all of the fucking way’. I got back off a 10.5 hour trip last night and as I write this, my knees are absolutely throbbing with pain. The 5’2″ qunt in front of me insisted on having it all of the way back and refused to move forward even while eating. When I asked the British Airways flight attendant to ask her to raise her seat during mealtime, she smiled and shook her head. Apparently the ability to recline is SO much more permissive than damaging someone’s knees. So, no sleep, no meals for yours truly because of some made-up consumer privilege. Karma is real– I do hope a double-decker bus parks on her knees in payback. Great article Matt!

  26. Just because someone has purchased a ticket, doesn’t give them the right to be inconsiderate of others. We all need to think about our fellow man/woman in all areas of life. We’re all on this planet together. Can’t we all just get along? haha… Seriously though, I hate it when people recline their seats on airplanes. It’s SO ridiculous, given the space that has diminished over the years between rows. If someone has back issues and are reclining for that, I can understand – but perhaps be thoughtful enough to let the person behind you know. You wouldn’t lean your seat back onto someone’s knees in a restaurant would you? Why would it be ok in a plane?

  27. Depends. Do you worry about the short people behind you when you’re in a theater? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paid good money to see a play, but can’t see the stage because of the tall people in front of me.

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