Should Passengers Ask Before Reclining? Delta’s CEO Thinks So

It’s only been a few days since we reported on an incident where a man repeatedly punched the back of the passenger’s seat in front of him when she reclined. The incident was hotly debated with valid arguments on both sides. Now, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian is weighing in on the issue. Here’s what he had to say.

British Airways Airbus A350 Best Seats
Not all seats are created equal. In most premium economy classes there is enough space between seats to mitigate the intrusion of a reclining seat. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

When asked if passengers should check-in with the guest sitting behind them before reclining, Bastian said the following in an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box:

“I think customers have the right to recline…The proper thing to do if you recline into somebody is that you ask if it’s OK first and then you do it. I never recline, because I don’t think it’s something that – since I’m the CEO of the airline – I should be reclining my seat, and I never say anything if someone reclines into me.”

The source of the conflict

The issue is really nothing new. However, it’s back in the spotlight because of an incident that happened last week:

Although the punching stopped, the passenger behind Wendi went on to shake her seat violently for some time. While the man’s behavior comes off as immature and disrespectful, his frustration is understandable. As you can see in the video, he has a seat in the last row – these seats typically do not recline.

Two sides of the argument

The right to recline: As many people have argued, as passengers paying for the seat, they have the right to use all of the features available to it. This includes reclining back. For some travelers suffering from back problems, it might just be a necessity to do so.

Most would argue that if the person behind them is inconvenienced, they too have the right to recline. Of course, this has the potential to set off a chain reaction, with those in non-reclining seats at the back of the cabin suffering the most. And so we move on to the other side…

You can’t recline. There isn’t enough room: On the other side of the debate, reclining a seat can greatly reduce the amount of available space for the person behind. In fact, it may prevent them from enjoying a meal, watching their IFE properly, or working on their laptop. Being able to eat in a sem-natural position or enjoy an airline’s inflight entertainment system – these too seem like something every passenger has the right to do.

Should Passengers Ask Before Reclining? Delta’s CEO Thinks So
Airlines are constantly looking for ways to make their cabins denser. Photo: Chris Loh/Simple Flying

Possible solutions

Communicate: As Mr. Bastian suggests – we could all just communicate with the traveler behind us and ask if it’s okay to tilt the seat back. This should settle the majority of conflicts because if someone says “no”, they might have a decently good and understandable reason for saying so. Or they might respond by saying “yes, but not fully.”

Of course, this suggestion is easier said than done. International travel means there might be an increased possibility of a language barrier to overcome. Some travelers might seem too intimidating to approach. And some people are just plain shy and unwilling to initiate contact.

Demand more from airlines: This obviously isn’t a short-term solution by any means. But airlines are the ones who have put travelers in these situations. They have the ability to re-configure their cabins with various options including:

  • Increasing pre-recline: The amount of recline in the upright position. This is something Spirit Airlines is rolling out in their new cabins. Some airlines have horrendous pre-recline where the ‘upright position’ is literally 90 degrees. It is incredibly uncomfortable.
  • Excluding or limiting the recline function: Airlines like Ryanair and Wizz Air have no recline function at all. No recline means no arguments between travelers (just complaints to the airline).
  • Increasing seat pitch: Increasing the distance between seats may alleviate the issue somewhat.

Perhaps a combination of all of the above would make the flight experience better overall. This comes at the cost of airline profitability…of course.

Virgin A350 Premium Economy
A reclining seat can make viewing the entertainment screen difficult. Photo: Jo Bailey/Simple Flying


In my opinion, this comes down to airlines and their foresight – or lack thereof.  Some airlines will advertise generous seat pitch while others tout their amount of recline. This is done without considering the fact that some features will lead to these disagreements – pitting travelers against each other.

There are valid reasons on both sides for reclining and not reclining. I, for one, am in agreement with Delta’s CEO – that passengers should ask.

Where do you stand on this hot topic? Let us know your thoughts on the right to recline by leaving a comment!