Are You Legally Entitled To Recline Your Seat On An Airplane? The Answer Isn’t As Straightforward As You’d Think

reclining airplane seat laws


It’s hard to believe there was once a time when flying was considered a fairly luxurious experience; one where people headed to the airport with a sense of excitement as opposed to the suffocating amount of dread that comes with knowing you’re going to have to deal with security before being wedged into a seat for hours on end while engaging in a battle for an armrest with a total stranger.

However, that particular struggle has nothing on what is arguably the biggest source of contention you’ll ever encounter on an airplane: whether or not it’s acceptable to recline your seat.

Over the past couple of decades, legroom on your typical flight has experienced George Costanza levels of shrinkage as airlines have done everything in their power to squeeze as many people as possible onto their planes. While many travelers resort to reclining to minimize their misery, they do so at the expense of the people behind them, which has led to more than a few altercations—including one that resulted in a woman demanding an FBI investigation after having her seat repeatedly punched by a passenger who took exception to her decision.

That incident sparked a debate about whether or not you’re entitled to take advantage of the button that grants you a bit more comfort while consequently depriving another person of theirs. As someone who stands at 6’10” and cannot physically fit in economy, I probably don’t have to tell you where I stand on this particular issue, so while I consider reclining the ultimate dick move, there are plenty of people who would argue I’m actually a dick for repeatedly shoving my knees into someone’s back until they get the hint.

Following the aforementioned incident, Delta’s CEO attempted to clarify the airline’s policy, saying passengers are allowed to recline but should ask their neighbor before doing so. That ambiguous statement didn’t do much to clarify things, but as Salon recently pointed out, the real issue is that the answer to “Do you have the right to recline your seat?” seems to be “No one really has any idea.”

In order to get to the bottom of the question, you have to take three legal principles into consideration: attachment, first-in-time, and possession. In order to highlight these issues, the outlet looked at the case of a man who deployed a device called a “Knee Defender” to prevent the person in front of him from reclining, which sparked a confrontation that resulted in an emergency landing.

While the concept of attachment dictates you have the right to decide what to do with your seat, things get messier when you consider you’re required to keep yours in an upright position upon takeoff, which is when the man attached the Knee Defender and arguably laid claim by acting “first-in-time” and establishing possession of the space where he was planning to do work on his laptop.

However, things get trickier when you realize the real owner of the space is the airlines themselves, who are basically asking for trouble when you consider they promise passengers the right to do what they want with their seat when they secure a ticket only to see these conflicts erupt as a result. Some of them have banned the use of the Knee Defender but have declined to institute any actual policies to address the primary issue.

As a result, it seems unlikely this debate is going to stop raging at any point in the near future.

Connor O'Toole avatar
Connor Toole is the Deputy Editor at BroBible. He is a New England native who went to Boston College and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Frequently described as "freakishly tall," he once used his 6'10" frame to sneak in the NBA Draft and convince people he was a member of the Utah Jazz.