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Pilot'S Perspective: Seat Leaning Etiquette

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Lean or Not to Lean…The Great Airplane Seat Debate

By Pilot Pete

Now and then I get to ride in the back of the plane. I have to admit, I really can’t stand it when someone leans his or her airplane seat. If traveling in economy and seated in front of someone, I rarely do it…when I do, I do what I call the “press-n-tap.” Simply put, the “press-n-tap” is when I press the little silver button, tap back on my seat lightly and whatever I get is whatever I get. It usually gives me a few microns of recline.

However, if you are the leaning type-and you have every right to be-here is what your crew is thinking about when we tell you shortly after takeoff to “sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.”

First, we are hoping and praying that you don’t really, “sit back”...

We hope this for a number of reasons. The main reason is a little something I call “passenger harmony”. We don’t expect every flight to include a rousing rendition of Kumbaya and group hugs, but we also don’t need anyone getting angry onboard. This probably goes without saying, but post 9/11 we are extremely cautious about passenger behavior. Some may say overly cautious, but I don’t care…I believe it is better to err on the side of extremism in this area. Take a look at these links for seat recline rage stories…

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We also don’t want to have to ask you twice to raise your seat. Twice, you ask? Yes, because when we get close to landing, we will politely ask you to please, “return your tray tables and seatbacks to their full upright position.” Some of you will do this, some of you won’t (you know who you are).

Then, we tell you “flight attendants will be coming through the cabin to complete their final safety checks” (yes, another cue). Some of you will take heed, some of you won’t. And of course, if a passenger happens to be sleeping, the wake-up process necessary to complete this safety check is a completely different matter…

Your flight attendants would much rather be doing something else.

In my own personal experience, I have witnessed the emotional gamut played out when it comes to the seat recline practice. I have seen passengers simply ask the person to raise it a bit; I have seen passengers immediately press the flight attendant call button to tattle on the leaning offender, I have seen passengers become absolutely irate when someone leans their seat back. And then there was the complete meltdown I witnessed (literally and figuratively) when a passenger leaned his seat back so violently that it jarred the piping hot coffee that was on the passengers tray seated behind him, spilling the coffee all over the passenger and his tablet computer, frying it…and ruining what was apparently a very important report.

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So clearly, there are very different “leaning” styles. Which made me come up with this while sitting on the jumpseat

The “What Kind of Leaner are You” Quiz

Examine the following statements, and choose which one best describes you…

A. I feel sooo guilty when I lean my seat back, therefore I will sit completely upright from New York to Sydney. No, its fine really, my spine surgery went well, and I have plenty of pain medicine, so I can make it. I can’t feel my legs right now, but it’s fine…no really, I am ok.

B. I just leaned a little bit…did she notice? Let me just try a little bit more now…can she tell? Maybe I will wait about five more minutes and see if I can get away with it again…

C. Ahhhh, I can finally take a nap for an hour, let me lean my seat back here. (An hour later…) Ok, gotta work, so let me sit up and get to work. (Fifteen minutes later…) Whooo, I just wrote a paragraph. I am exhausted…maybe another nap would help. Let me lean back here for just a few minutes. (Two hours later…) Just great, I missed the beverages and snacks, let me sit up straight and ring my call button to get a drink. Wait? Is that the landing gear I hear? Oh! Better lean back one more time then for a pre-landing nap!

D. I paid $499 for this ticket and I own this aircraft. [DING, calling the flight attendant] I want an extra snack bag, [DING] I want a blanket, [DING}I want the whole can of soda, [DING] and another cup of ice. [DING] Are there any snacks left? [DING] What time are we landing? What, I can’t believe she told me to take my seat because the pilot just told us there will be turbulence and we need to buckle up….who does she think she is? I paid $499 for this seat, and I will go to the bathroom when I damn well please. I will never fly this airline again. Is that someone behind me? Well they better get ready because I’m getting all the space I deserve…timberrrrr!

(see results below)

Quiz Results!

If you choose A, you are a F.A.T. Leaner. Don’t get mad, F.A.T. is an acronym for Fear and Trepidation. Of course, if you are fat, you have “No Lean”. Ok, it’s cheesy, but you get it. Basically, you don’t want to recline your seat under any circumstances; I’m the same way.

If you choose B, you are a Stealth Leaner. The passenger who inches a little at first, then more, then a little more…perhaps thinking that the person behind you won’t notice your stealthy encroachment upon their space. Nice try, but believe me, they can tell.

If you choose C, you are a Wimbledon Leaner. You move your seat back then straight, back than straight, back then straight, [repeat] throughout the whole flight. Anyone who watches you feels like they are watching a tennis match. Your activity leaves the person behind you paranoid and traumatized by the end of the flight…they have no idea what to expect.

If you choose D, you are the Shock and Awe Leaner. You put everything into your recline… You lean back all the way, using the full force of your body, and you make sure to do it during the beverage service. Your recline is an explosive, knee crushing, drink spilling, paper fluttering, anger inducing disaster…and you don’t even care.

Now that you know what kind of seat leaner you are, there are a few simple universal rules for being a more accommodating onboard citizen, and for contributing to “passenger harmony”…

Onboard Seat Leaning for Dummies

  • Look at seat maps and learn which airlines or aircraft types have the best seat pitch. For longer flights, try to choose those.
  • You have a right to lean back, let go of the guilt!
  • Ask first. Then… Lean SLOWLY.
  • Be reasonable, if the person behind you is tall, pregnant, holding a baby, working on the computer, etc. decrease your recline angle.
  • Try not to recline if food is involved.
  • If you plan to lean, and if the aircraft is not full (and the crew permits), ask to move to a seat with no one in the seat behind you.
  • Leaning your seat back on an RJ (regional jet) is just unfair. Period.

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